Brussels seeks answers from Spain on divisive Catalan amnesty plan

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Brussels is pressing Spain over the “serious concerns” of some citizens about a potential amnesty for Catalan separatists that would enable Spain’s acting Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez to stay in power.

Didier Reynders, EU justice commissioner, requested more information from Madrid about the plan in a letter sent as tensions boil over in Spain, where a possible amnesty has provoked violent street protests and fierce condemnation from conservative politicians and judges.

Sánchez’s Socialists, who fell far short of a majority in an inconclusive general election in July, are in talks over an amnesty deal for Catalans who face penalties related to a bid for independence in 2017. Such a pact would give the premier enough parliamentary votes to secure another term.

But it is triggering visceral reactions in a polarised country. Conservatives and the Socialist party’s old guard argue that any deal that erases charges or convictions linked to the illegal independence referendum six years ago would undermine the justice system and shatter the principle of equality before the law.

In a letter to Spain’s ministers of justice and parliamentary relations, Reynders, a liberal Belgian politician, wrote that “serious concerns are now being voiced as regards ongoing discussions on the possible adoption of an amnesty law”.

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He acknowledged that no formal proposal had been published but said “this has become a matter of considerable importance in the public debate and the [European] Commission has been contacted on this matter, including by a large number of citizens.

“I would therefore be grateful if you could provide me with more detailed information, notably as regards the personal, material and temporal scope of this envisaged law.”

Sánchez, who in 2021 granted partial pardons to nine jailed separatist leaders, said before the election in July that a broader amnesty would be “unacceptable”.

Now he argues that an amnesty would further defuse the political conflict over Catalonia’s status, correcting the mistake of dragging it into the judicial system and aiding a return to “peaceful coexistence” between the prosperous north-eastern region and the rest of Spain. Although support for Catalan independence has fallen since 2017, separatist parties are not renouncing their desire to break away.

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In a response to Reynders, Félix Bolaños, Spain’s minister for parliamentary relations, wrote: “Should an amnesty bill be registered [in parliament], be assured that we will explain to you all the details of such a law, as well as the position of our government.”

Òmnium Cultural, a pro-independence campaign group, estimates that as many as 1,400 people could benefit from an amnesty, including those accused or convicted of crimes ranging from public order offences to the misuse of public funds.

For several nights the streets outside Socialist party headquarters in Madrid have been filled with angry protesters decrying an amnesty, among them supporters of the conservative People’s party (PP) and the hard-right Vox group, as well as neo-Nazis blamed for violent clashes with police.

The sixth consecutive night of protests on Wednesday was marked by a heavy police presence and less aggression than previous days, when projectiles thrown by protesters were greeted with police tear gas and rubber bullets.

Voicing his “outrage” over the violence, Sánchez said on Wednesday that protesters “attack the constitutional values and democracy they claim to defend”.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the PP, condemned the violence but also blamed Sánchez for it. “When you are trying to grant an amnesty for violence, you cannot give lessons to those of us who condemn it,” he told him.

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Sanchez’s party sealed an amnesty pact with one pro-independence party last week but he still needs the pivotal votes of Together for Catalonia, a hardline separatist group led by Carles Puigdemont. A likely beneficiary of an amnesty, Puigdemont is living in Brussels as a fugitive from Spanish justice having fled arrest after leading the breakaway attempt in 2017 as Catalonia’s regional president.

After weeks of negotiations, Puigdemont and the Socialists had come close to clinching a deal but their talks hit trouble this week when Together, known as Junts in Catalan, was unnerved by anti-amnesty moves by conservative Spanish judges.

One judge said Puigdemont was under investigation for an alleged “leadership” role that could be classified as “terrorism” in a Catalan group called Democratic Tsunami, which was involved in violent protests.

Some members of Spain’s general council of the judiciary, which governs judges, criticised the amnesty plan in a statement, expressing “intense concern and desolation at the degradation, if not abolition, of the rule of law in Spain”.

Additional reporting by Laura Dubois in Brussels