(CN) — Spain's Supreme Court imposed long sentences Monday on imprisoned leaders of Catalonia's drive for independence for their roles in a botched 2017 secession attempt.
The harsh sentences rekindled anger in Catalonia, where large-scale protests erupted on Monday. Spain sent large numbers of police to Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, in anticipation of unrest after the Supreme Court's ruling. Protesters and police in riot gear clashed at Barcelona's airport.
Those sentenced by the Supreme Court are viewed by their supporters as political prisoners who led a democratic, nonviolent push for independence in 2017. Their supporters see the sentences as deeply unjust and more confirmation that Spain's central authorities are anti-Catalan.
Opponents accuse the Catalan separatists of undermining Spain's national unity and illegally seeking to break Catalonia away from Spain. Critics often call their actions a coup. They also point out that opinion polls show that the Catalan population of 7.5 million people is split on the question of independence.
The court sentenced the former regional vice president, Oriol Junqueras, to 13 years in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds. It also banned him from holding public office for 13 years.
“We will be back even stronger, more convinced and more firm than ever,” Junqueras said on Twitter after the ruling. “Thanks to everyone and persist so that we will persist always, always!”
Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont called the verdicts “an atrocity.” He and six other separatist leaders fled Spain to avoid arrest in 2017. He is now in self-imposed exile in Belgium. “Now more than ever, we will be with you and your families,” Puigdemont said on Twitter. “For the future of our sons and daughters. For democracy. For Europe. For Catalonia.”
Also on Monday, a Spanish judge in the trial against Catalan leaders reactivated European and international arrest warrants for Puigdemont. The Supreme Court said the new warrant calls for his arrest and extradition to Spain for sedition and misuse of government funds. As reported by The Associated Press, the court said the charges against Puigdemont were "significantly close" to the crimes for which Junqueras and other defendants were found guilty and sentenced on Monday.
Other former Catalan politicians with the regional government received similarly long sentences. Former foreign minister Raul Romeva, former government spokesman Jordi Turull and former labor minister Dolors Bassa were sentenced to 12 years and banned from public office for 12 years.
Former speaker of Catalonia's parliament, Carme Forcadell, received an 11½-year sentence and former interior minister Joaquim Forn and former territorial minister Josep Rull 10½-year sentences.
Two popular pro-independence activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were found guilty of sedition and given nine-year sentences. Three other separatist leaders were found guilty of disobedience and were ordered to pay fines.
The independence leaders had faced even more harsh sentences, but the court opted not to charge them with rebellion. A charge of rebellion involves use of violence, but the independence drive was largely peaceful.
The sentences follow nationally televised hearings and a four-month trial that featured more than 500 witnesses, including former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Spain’s judiciary, which critics say is too cozy with the country’s dominant political parties, came under intense scrutiny during the politically explosive trial.
Many people in Spain feel that the judicial system lacks legitimacy, in large part due to judicial scandals that have left people viewing the courts as stocked with judges too closely aligned with Spain’s dominant parties – the conservative People’s Party and, to a much lesser extent, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.
The guilty verdicts are likely to worsen the relationship between Spain and Catalonia. The Catalan government endorsed acts of civil disobedience after the ruling, but it was unclear what immediate steps, if any, it might take to revive the independence drive.
The unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia followed a referendum on Oct. 1, 2017, an act Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled illegal. Many who opposed secession did not vote in the referendum.
The Spanish government sent thousands of police officers to break up the referendum by storming polling stations and violently stopping people from casting ballots. In the aftermath, authorities arrested the independence leaders.
Before the trial, Amnesty International and many legal scholars called on Spain to drop the charges and release the defendants. The Catalan independence movement is also backed by other European separatists, such as those in Scotland.
“These politicians have been jailed for seeking to allow the people of Catalonia to peacefully choose their own future,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the head of Scotland's government and leader of the Scottish National Party. “Any political system that leads to such a dreadful outcome needs urgent change.”
The Supreme Court verdicts may be appealed to Spain's Constitutional Court and could wind up before the European Court of Justice and also the European Court of Human Rights.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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