The Spanish Cabinet has issued pardons for nine imprisoned instigators of Catalonia’s 2017 secession bid in a move that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez says is needed to bring reconciliation.
“The government has taken the decision because it is the best decision for Catalonia and the best decision for Spain,” Mr Sanchez said in a short, nationally televised appearance.
“We hope to open a new era of dialogue and build new bridges.”
Former Catalan vice president, Oriol Junqueras, who in 2019 got the heaviest sentence of 13 years in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds, will go free along with his associates after spending three-and-a-half years behind bars.
The other eight included the former Cabinet members of the Catalan government, the former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, and two leaders of separatist civil society groups who had all received sentences ranging from nine to 12 years.
The pardons lifted the remaining years of their prison terms, while keeping intact their status as being unfit to hold public office.
The government said that the pardons could be revoked if their beneficiaries try to lead another breakaway bid.
The government has taken the decision because it is the best decision for Catalonia and the best decision for SpainSpain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
“These pardons do not depend on their recipients renouncing their ideas, and nor do we expect them to do so,” Mr Sanchez said.
“But these people were never put in prison for the ideas they hold, but rather for having violated the laws of our democracy.”
The measure has been opposed by Spain’s right wing and many on the left, becoming a risky political gamble for Mr Sanchez, the Socialist leader.
But his minority left-wing coalition needs the Catalan legislators’ support to pass new budgets and significant laws. And the prime minister has insisted that a hardline approach and inaction by previous conservative administrations have not solved the deepening conflict.
“With this action, we materially get nine people out of prison, but we symbolically add millions and millions of people to coexistence,” the prime minister said on Monday in Barcelona, the Catalan regional capital, during a speech announcing the pardons.
A statement from the prime minister’s office on Tuesday added that the government “has decided to confront the problem and to look for concord, opening a way for reconciliation and reunion”.
Tensions over a desire for secession in the Catalan-speaking region of 7.5 million grew in earnest a decade ago amid recession-driven economic hardship and discontent with a conservative administration opposition to greater autonomy.
They came head to head in October 2017, when separatists passed a unilateral independence declaration based on the results of a referendum deemed illegal by Spain’s top courts. The vote was boycotted by the unionist side and was held amid a police crackdown to stop it.