The brutality with which the governments of Spain and France are attacking their citizens has become commonplace in the EU, much as the corpses of refugees floating in the Mediterranean. Justice, human rights, and democracy are not among the Four Freedoms of the EU.
Chris Bambery is author and broadcaster. Co-author (with George Kerevan) of Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco (Luath Press, June 2018)
On the morning of Wednesday 16 January of this year Spanish National Police went to the homes of two Catalan mayors and arrested them on public disorder charges. Ignasi Sabater, mayor of Verges, was one of the local officials arrested, with the other being the head of the Celrà council, Dani Cornellà, mayor of Celrà, both towns in Girona province in the north of Catalonia, the bedrock of support for independence, are members of the radical left Popular Unity Party. Further CUP activists were also arrested, 16 in total.
The charges relate to a demonstration held in Girona on 6 December, 2018, on the 40th anniversary of the Spanish Constitution.
Sabater’s lawyer, Benet Salellas, described the detentions “unjustified and disproportionate,” Pointing out usually those facing public disorder charges are summoned to be charged by letter, not dragged from their homes by paramilitary police.
Further, he claimed that when he went to the police station to access his client he was not allowed in because he spoke Catalan not Spanish. He stated that this was “an attack on multilinguism and, in this case, also the right to a defence.”
Some 700 Catalan mayors and councillors face similar charges for heinous crimes such as keeping municipal buildings open or flying the Catalan flag on the day of Spanish national holidays. Elsewhere I have written about the case of Tamara Carrasco, a member of the grass roots Committees to Defend the Republic, who was arrested in a dawn raid by armed Spanish Civil Guards, and taken to Madrid charged with “terrorism” after taking part in peaceful road blockades. The Spanish judge dismissed that charge but that of public disorder stood and the prosecution said it would bring further charges. On that Tamara has been confined to her home town under police supervision. Spain is a Bourbon state, with head of state King Felipe Bourbon V1. He is carrying on the family tradition of doling out repression to political opponents.
Spanish democracy, its human rights record and the neutrality of the Spanish judicial system will be put under spotlight when the trial of 18 Catalan politicians and civic leaders beginsl at Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid in relation to the October 2017 independence referendum, charged with “rebellion” and “sedition.” These are charges long removed from the statute books of other European democracies. The prosecution is demanding sentences of up to 25 years.
The fact that 18 people will be in the dock together facing political charges will make it look like a show trial. They are charged with fomenting violent rebellion as the masterminds of the October 2017 referendum.
For those that recall events that day the only violence came from the Spanish Civil Guards and National Police who were sent by the Spanish government to physically stop voting, breaking into polling stations to seize ballot boxes and attacking those waiting to vote. The Catalan response was entirely non-violent, as it has remained.
The former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, is also charged with allowing a debate on independence, something desired by a majority of MPs. All other members of the then Parliamentary Board which agreed to this are facing trial in Catalonia, but not Forcadell who will be taken to Madrid. There is a widespread view this is because she had formerly been President of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the biggest pro-independence grass roots movement and thorn in the side of the Spanish government.
Forcadell has been held in preventative detention since March along with six other Catalan politicians, including the former Vice President, Oriol Junqueras. Two other figures, Jordi Cuixart, President of Omnium, the largest cultural association in Europe, and Jordi Sanchéz, another former ANC President, have been held since October 2017. Amnesty International has called for the charges against them to be dropped and for their release. It will send observers to the forthcoming trial.
Part of the evidence against Cuixart is his use of the slogan “No Pasaran.” The state prosecutors hold this up as an appeal to violence. Its historical origins by Republicans in the Spanish Civil War are clearly lost on them!
Of course for Catalans the legacy of Franco, the victor in that brutal war, and his dictatorship, remains vivid. They faced not only the executions and repression shared by all of his opponents but an attempt to liquidate their language and culture. Catalan was banned in public and from schools and print.
All of this was supposed to have been swept away after Franco’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy, held up since by the EU as a model for others to follow.
Yet the more one discovers about the state of Spanish democracy the more question marks face that transition. Take the neutrality of the judiciary, a cornerstone for other European democracies. Spanish governments can appoint judges based on their political loyalty. The centre left and centre right have done so while in office but since the mid-1990s successive right wing Popular Party governments have appointed those who share their determination to maintain the unity of the Spanish state and their animosity to Catalan aspirations for greater autonomy and later independence.
In 2010 the Constitutional Court struck out key clauses of a new Statue of Autonomy for Catalonia, agreed by the Spanish and Catalan Parliaments and by a referendum in Catalonia. The action of judges, many political appointees, created popular support for independence overnight.
The judges hearing next month’s mass trial include those who have been heard putting forward statements against Catalonia’s existing devolved government.
Since 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court has developed a taste for striking out laws passed by the Catalan Parliament, including that banning bull fighting (held by the Court to be a symbol of Spanish identity). Last year after the Catalan pro-independence parties had put forward a nominee for President and in the first round of elections he failed to get an overall majority judges moved to jail him removing him from the ballot and trampling on Catalan Parliamentary sovereignty.
The fact that the previous conservative and highly corrupt Partido Popular government, and now the current Social Democratic lead minority government in Spain conducted a campaign of police repression in Catalonia, seems to have emboldened these judges.
In this situation the silence of the EU is striking and scandalous, if not unsurprising. Spain is the fourth biggest Eurozone economy, and that counts, while the key EU leaders do not favour the breakup of states. Yet if what I have described was occurring in Russia and Turkey the EU would implement sanctions. There should not be two different approaches to democracy and human rights, but there is.
The situation in Catalonia is today that 80 percent of the population support the prisoners, far more than support independence, but support for that is growing with a narrow majority in favour. A bigger majority want to be rid of the monarchy after King Felipe intervened directly to attack Catalan independence.
Catalonia has also been home to sustained protest actions unmatched anywhere in Europe in recent times. Those mobilisations have overcome the divisions sometimes manifest between the three pro-independence political parties.
One weakness of the pro-independence movement has been its failure to address the failings of Spanish democracy by calling for the abolition of the Civil Guard and National Police (both mainstays of the Franco regime) and challenging the real limits of a constitution drafted in 1978. In Spain actors, comedians and rappers face trial or exile for offences like insulting the king or the Catholic Church.
Regional elections in Andalusia, the southern region which has been a bastion of support for the Socialists, saw their vote collapse and the success of a right wing bloc of the Partido Popular, the neo-liberal Ciudadanos and the fascist Vox Party, which won seats for the first time. Each competes as to who is hardest on Catalonia.
Another more positive shift, however, is the growth of support for Catalonia in the Basque Country, spearheaded by a radical left which has faced bans and jail, in a key case found to be unlawful by the European Courts. The Basque Country and Catalonia were bastions of antifascist resistance in the closing years of Franco’s rule.
Back in 1970 the dying Franco dictatorship put on trial 18 members of the Basque revolutionary nationalist group ETA. It was held in the city of Burgos, home to the Spanish military and the centre of the right wing rebellion of 1936 against a Popular Front government that led to the Spanish Civil War.
The 18 Burgos defendants were sentenced to death, the proceedings created a shockwave internationally and a wave of protest at home and abroad. The regime had to commute the death sentences, the defendants were morale victors and it encouraged growing opposition across Spain to Franco and his dictatorship.
When the trial begins in Madrid the 18 defendants will want to expose the democratic deficit which exists in Spain and the lack of judicial neutrality. Whether they can remains to be seen. But across Europe and beyond all those who value and democracy and civil liberties need to ensure the world understands this trial is an attack on both led by judges who are far from unbiased.