Council of Europe calls for release of Catalan political prisoners and withdrawal of Euro-orders

The Spanish government says the text is "inconsistent" but interprets that backs Spain as a state of law

4 min
Facade of the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg.

BrusselsShould politicians be prosecuted for statements they have made in the exercise of their mandate? This is the title of the report published this Monday by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe by 70 votes in favor, 28 against and 12 abstentions. It includes in the same 28 pages the case of the persecution of politicians of the Kurdish minority in Turkey and "the prosecution of several Catalan politicians finally sentenced to long prison sentences for sedition and other crimes, among other things for statements made in the exercise of their political mandates in support of an unconstitutional referendum on the independence of Catalonia". The simple fact that the Catalan process is framed within this report is already a victory for the narrative of independence abroad, but the text goes even further and demands that the prisoners be pardoned or released, Euro-orders cancelled, charges against low-ranking officials over the referendum withdrawn and prisoners not to be required to disavow their political convictions to obtain more favourable prison regimes.

The report was drafted by Latvian Socialist MP Boriss Cilevics, who has spent over a year doing research including a visit to Lledoners prison, where the jailed politicians are held. The final text is clear in its claims, and the draft was even clearer, but Spain has exerted pressure to remove words such as "amnesty" or "exiles", through amendments, as explained on Monday by Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya. After the Legal Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe approved the text a week ago, the Foreign Ministry said that the report "backs" Spain's actions with regard to prisoners, but at the same time the government of Sánchez considers that the text starts from an "original sin", which is "to question the freedom of expression of politicians in Spain". Thus, while highlighting the parts of the text that suppose back Spain as a state of law and its judiciary's independence, González Laya has also criticised the "incoherence" of asking "the executive to interfere in judicial proceedings".

Of the 324 members of the assembly, 12 are Spanish. These are mainly responsible for the amendments made to the text, most of which have not been accepted. In fact, one of the parliamentarians is Laura Castel, from pro-independence ERC, who has tried to change "illegal" referendum for "unauthorised" referendum or to add the claim for amnesty in addition to the release. On the other hand, unionist PP representatives had proposed an amendment in which they also demanded to respect the right of the opposition in Catalonia. From the PSOE, amendments have been presented to eliminate the request to "free" prisoners or to withdraw the accusations against low-ranking officials accused over the referendum. In addition to the internal controversy and the pressure that has been exerted by the Spanish government, there were also there were three judges' associations that directly called on Sánchez to prevent the approval of the text, because they consider that it calls into question the objectivity of the Spanish justice system.

During the debate, the rapporteur was satisfied that none of the parties involved was "satisfied", which he interpreted as a "good sign" of the text's balance. Cilevics has defended that "Turkey and Spain are very different countries, but they have some things in common" and has also responded "to colleagues who believe" that they ought not comment because they would "interfere in judicial independence": "Courts are not above criticism". However, the rapporteur has also said that he does not want his report to be used "to promote separatism" and has replied to the ERC parliamentarian that the referendum was unconstitutional but that what is "disproportionate" and "contrary to the rule of law" is the punishment. To the PP parliamentarians who have argued that pro-independence politicians are not imprisoned for their statements, but for their actions, the Latvian has responded: "Everybody knows that the Catalan prisoners did not incite violence, only spoke and organised a vote and therefore they were sentenced, so I can not accept the statement that they were convicted over actions and not statements"

No violence

The text strikes a balance but is forceful with regard to the judicialisation of the Independence bid. It defends that Spain is a "vibrant" democracy where "the mere expression of pro-independence views does not give rise to criminal prosecution". It also assures that it respects "the Spanish constitutional order" and the independence of its courts but considers "unquestionable" that none of the accused politicians is going to "call for violence". On the contrary, the text continues, "the Prosecutor's Office also recognises that they called on the demonstrators to refrain from any violent act". And, while noting that the referendum was declared unconstitutional and illegal, welcomes the announcement of the reform of the crime of sedition to avoid "disproportionate" penalties and recalls that the Spanish authorities continue to seek the extradition of Catalan politicians residing in other European countries "despite several setbacks in the German, Belgian and UK courts"

Immediately after the vote, Catalan vice-president of the Generalitat Jordi Puigneró and minister for External Action Victòria Alsina appeared at the Catalan government's delegation to the EU in Brussels and described the result as the "most politically relevant warning that Europe has sent to Spain so far". Puigneró has gone further and has criticised Sánchez's "minipardons" and has interpreted that "the Council of Europe is saying in Spain that it has to apply amnesty".

The Council of Europe is not the European Court of Human Rights, but they are related. It is the international organisation formed by deputies from 47 countries. It watches over the fulfilment of human rights and also promotes through international conventions such as the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It monitors its member states through independent and specialised bodies. It is not an institution of the European Union. The European Court of Human Rights is the permanent judicial body that enforces the European Convention on Human Rights. The seat of both institutions is in the French city of Strasbourg.

Council of Europe's demands for Spain
  • Release or pardon prisoners "Consider pardoning or releasing from prison the Catalan politicians convicted for their role in organising the unconstitutional referendum of October 2017 and related peaceful demonstrations and consider dropping extradition proceedings against Catalan politicians living abroad"
  • Withdraw indictments against the low-ranking officials "Withdraw the remaining accusation against low-ranking officials involved in the unconstitutional referendum of 2017 and refrain from sanctioning the successors of those imprisoned for symbolic actions that merely express solidarity with those detained"
  • Not demanding a disavowal of political opinions "Refrain from demanding that detained Catalan politicians renounce their deeply held political views in exchange for a more favorable prison regime or a possibility of pardon; however, they can be required to commit to pursuing their political goals without resorting to illegal means"
  • Constructive dialogue "Initiate an open and constructive dialogue with Catalonia's political parties, including those opposed to independence, to strengthen the quality of Spanish democracy, one of the oldest states in Europe, through the authority of the rule of law, good governance and full respect for human rights, without resorting to criminal law, but in full respect of Spain's constitutional order".