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Criminal or martyr? A prisoner poses a political dilemma for Spain

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Criminal or martyr? A prisoner poses a political dilemma for Spain

Off a leafy boulevard in Barcelona sit the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, a corporation identified in Spain as a lot for its literary prizes as for its goals of an unbiased republic in Catalonia.
But its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be discovered: For the previous 3 1/2 years, he has lived in a jail cell.
To Spanish authorities, Cuixart is a harmful legal, convicted of sedition for main a rally at a time when he and different separatist leaders have been in search of to arrange a breakaway state within the northeastern area of Catalonia. Yet to his supporters, and within the eyes of many overseas international locations, he’s a political prisoner sitting within the coronary heart of Europe.
“They want us to change our ideals,” Cuixart mentioned, talking by way of a thick pane of glass within the jail guests part on a current afternoon.
More than three years have handed for the reason that Catalonian independence motion almost tore Spain aside, and the politicians in Madrid have seemingly received. Plans for secession are largely useless. The sound of pots banging, which had been a fixture of the motion, isn’t heard at evening now in Barcelona.

But Spain’s leaders, now consumed with battling the coronavirus pandemic, nonetheless have a political drawback. To many, Cuixart and eight different males jailed for sedition are actually martyrs who, in keeping with human rights teams, are being held for nothing greater than voicing and performing on their political opinions.
For the Spanish authorities — and for Europe as a complete — they’ve additionally change into a diplomatic headache, elevating accusations of hypocrisy towards a area identified for demanding larger democratic freedoms around the globe.
Russia this yr cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the discharge of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition chief. The United States lists the prisoners in its human rights report on Spain and calls their jailing a type of political intimidation.
Even lawmakers within the European Union, of which Spain is a member, have raised their plight. When the bloc mentioned holding Hungary and Poland accountable to EU rule-of-law requirements, some European parliamentarians famous a double normal: Spain, they mentioned, held political prisoners.
A gathering of Omnium Cultural in Barcelona on March 22, 2021. The group was based in 1961 to advertise the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish authorities forbade its use in public. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
The jailings stem from a long-standing battle, nonetheless unresolved, over identification, language and who has the best to steer in Catalonia, a area of seven.5 million individuals on the border with France.
In 2017, Catalonia was plunged into chaos when its leaders tried to carry a regional independence referendum in defiance of Spanish courts. The nationwide authorities in Madrid despatched in riot squads, which seized poll packing containers and even beat among the voters.
Separatists claimed victory anyway, although greater than half of voters didn’t forged ballots and polls confirmed that Catalonia was break up on independence.
Defiant, the Parliament in Catalonia went forward and declared independence anyway — solely to droop its personal declaration earlier than being dissolved by the Spanish authorities. By that point, Cuixart had already been arrested, and different separatist leaders fled for Belgium.
In 2019, the courts sentenced Cuixart and eight others to between 9 and 13 years in jail after convicting them of sedition.
“He is in jail simply for exercising his right to express himself,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads the Spanish workplace of Amnesty International, mentioned of Cuixart.
Arancha González Laya, the Spanish overseas minister, mentioned that this case introduced painful reminiscences within the nation of different independence actions, together with the killings by the terrorist group ETA, which fought for many years for the independence of the northern Basque area.
“They aren’t political prisoners. These are politicians that have broken the law,” González Laya mentioned in an interview.
“The question is, do you have in Spain the ability to express a different opinion? Answer: Yes. Do you have the right to unilaterally decide that you break up the country? No,” she added.
But David Bondia, a global regulation professor in Barcelona, mentioned that the Spanish authorities was contemplating an overhaul that may weaken its sedition legal guidelines, one thing he sees as an admission that there had been a mistake in jailing the separatist leaders.
Cuixart’s case was much more problematic from a authorized view. He was the top of a cultural group, but his sedition trial was carried out beneath a authorized framework reserved for politicians, Bondia mentioned, elevating due-process questions.
{A photograph} of Jordi Cuixart, the group’s president, on the workplaces of Omnium Cultural in Barcelona, on March 19, 2021. Cuixart is is serving a nine-year jail sentence for supporting a failed independence bid in his Spanish area, and his supporters say he shouldn’t be in jail in any respect. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
For Carles Puigdemont, the previous president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the state of affairs remembers the times of the Franco dictatorship, when political opponents lived in concern of persecution.
“For us, this has hit hard and brought us to the past,” he mentioned.
Puigdemont, who can also be wished on sedition costs, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, the place he serves within the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was eliminated in March, permitting for him to be extradited.
The shadow of Franco performed a job within the early days of Omnium, the cultural group that Cuixart would go on to steer.
It was based in 1961 by a bunch of businessmen to advertise the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish authorities forbade its use in public. Shortly after, Francoists closed Omnium and the group went underground.
When Cuixart was rising up on the outskirts of Barcelona within the Nineteen Eighties, Franco had died and lots of vestiges of his regime had lengthy been swept away. But Cuixart nonetheless noticed an intolerance towards his tradition.
There was Cuixart’s identify, for one. His first identify, Jordi, was the Catalan identify of the area’s patron saint, St. George the dragon slayer. But in official paperwork, Cuixart was registered with the Spanish identify Jorge, a typical follow within the nation, which had forbidden registering Catalan first names.
“They saw difference as a threat,” he mentioned.
Cuixart was swept into the world of Catalan letters by an uncle who owned a bookstore that was quickly identified for its literary salons crammed with poets and political figures. The environment was “a creative hurricane,” Cuixart mentioned that may encourage him for many years.
As a younger man, Cuixart plunged into the world of enterprise, first working in Barcelona factories, then saving to open certainly one of his personal. After his profile as an entrepreneur started to rise, he joined Omnium in 1996.
The group had grown since its clandestine days right into a key drive in Catalan tradition. It revived the Night of St. Llúcia, an after-dark literary pageant in Barcelona that had been banned by Franco, and gave out the St. Jordi Prize for the very best novel written in Catalan.
Omnium additionally reawakened the nationalist emotions that Cuixart had felt as an adolescent.

“Being Catalan was more than a language and a bloodline,” he mentioned. “It was a decision to live here and to be here. This is what made you Catalan.”
In 2010, Spain’s courts threw out a constitution that granted broad powers for self-government, 4 years after it had been accredited by voters and the regional Parliament. The transfer introduced widespread anger and separatist flags grew to become frequent within the countryside.
Soon, Parliament was discussing a transfer to declare an unbiased state, lengthy thought of a pipe dream of radicals.
Cuixart, who by 2015 had change into the president of Omnium, was generally conflicted that his group had additionally joined the independence push — it was a cultural group in any case, not a political one. But in the long run, he mentioned that not becoming a member of would have been standing on the unsuitable facet of historical past.
The essential day got here for Cuixart on Sept. 20, 2017, when Spanish police, attempting to cease the independence referendum from going down, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry constructing on suspicions that plans for the vote have been being organized there. But a large crowd surrounded the situation.
Cuixart and a pro-independence chief, Jordi Sánchez, tried to mediate between the protesters and the police. They arrange pathways by way of the gang for officers to enter the constructing and made bulletins that anybody contemplating violence was a “traitor.”
As the evening wore on, Cuixart mentioned that he had feared violent clashes. In a recording, he’s seen on prime of a car calling for the gang to disperse. Despite jeers from the protesters, most left and Cuixart mentioned that he then went to mattress.
The vote was held amid the crackdown the following month. But Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there have been no penalties after he dodged a navy draft as a younger man. He thought he had little to concern this time round.
Protesters rally exterior the Lledoners jail north of Barcelona, on March 19, 2021. Activists have gathered exterior the jail each evening since 2017 in assist of the Catalan separatist leaders held there. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
But then the fees got here: sedition, one of many highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian costs for exercise at a protest shocked even authorized specialists who mentioned that the sedition legal guidelines — which cowl crimes much less severe than full-out riot — had been hardly ever utilized in a rustic.
“I had to look up what ‘sedition’ even was,” Cuixart mentioned.
Cuixart now spends his days on the Lledoners jail, a penitentiary constructed for about 1,000 inmates that’s dwelling to convicted drug peddlers and murderers. He mentioned he spends his afternoons meditating and writing letters.
Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who’s towards Catalan independence, mentioned he felt little pity for Cuixart’s state of affairs as a result of the separatists introduced it on themselves.
“I don’t forgive them because they’ve broken our society,” Cañas mentioned, including that the independence push nonetheless divided Spanish houses. “I have friends I no longer speak to over this.”

Cuixart, for his half, mentioned he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it once more, he mentioned. It was Spain that wanted to alter, he mentioned, not him.
“At some point, Spain is going to have to reflect and ask themselves, ‘What are they going to do with me?’” he mentioned. “Eliminate me? They can’t.”