Nine pardoned pro-independence Catalan leaders walk free

MADRID (AP) — Nine Catalan separatists pardoned by the Spanish government walked out of prison yesterday to the cheers of supporters, leaving behind their lengthy terms for organising a bid four years ago to make Catalonia an independent republic.

Spain’s Cabinet pardoned them on Tuesday in the hope of starting what Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called a much-needed reconciliation in the country’s restive northeastern region, although fervent local support for the pardoned separatists indicated the problem won’t go away anytime soon.

Former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, five fellow Cabinet members, the former regional Parliament’s Speaker and two pro-independence activists walked free shortly after noon. They had spent between three-and-a-half and four years behind bars.

The freed separatists were met by dozens of cheering, clapping supporters and relatives who had gathered in the rain. The men, released in a group, held up a small banner that said, in English, “Freedom Catalonia”, as well as a Catalan flag. They addressed their supporters in the Catalan language.

“We are aware that today, with our release from prison, nothing has ended,” Junqueras told supporters in a defiant speech. “Prison does not scare us, it reinforces our ideas.”

The Catalan Regional President Pere Aragonès, and Speaker of the Catalan Parliament Laura Borràs also went to the prison for the separatists’ release. The pardon cancelled the remainder of prison terms ranging from nine to 13 years over sedition and misuse of public funds linked to the 2017 banned referendum and a short-lived Catalonia independence declaration. But the separatists won’t be able to hold public office until the end of their sentences and they could go back to prison if they break Spanish law again, the decree said.

Despite polls showing that many people in Spain were against the pardons, Sánchez has defended them, arguing that they are popular in Catalonia and that freeing the separatists will be a fresh start for relations between central and regional authorities.

Catalan leaders hold a banner and a Catalan pro-independence flag outside Lledoners prison in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, near Barcelona, Spain. PHOTO: AP