In the midst of the biggest political crisis in Spain since its return to democracy after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, Catalan separatists are accusing the Spanish judiciary of lacking independence.
On November 11, some 750,000 protesters – according to local police – gathered in Barcelona to demand the liberation of imprisoned separatist political and grassroots campaign leaders. The secessionists’ main argument – as shown in this essay in the Guardian by ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont – is that the Spanish state lacks truly democratic institutions, and that the leading Spanish political parties control the state and use it to their advantage.
After travelling to Brussels, the same day Spain’s attorney general called for charges to be brought against several separatist leaders for their part in Catalonia’s declaration of independence on October 27, Puigdemont said he wouldn’t return to Spain until he received guarantees of a fair trial.
In his speech from the Belgian capital, Puigdemont left out the fact that the declaration of independence was illegal according to Spain’s 1978 constitution, which Catalonia overwhelmingly approved. Spain’s supreme charter affirms “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”, which only the Spanish parliament can change.
However, the separatists’ independence bid did reveal an uglier side of Spain’s democracy, particularly during the violent police repression of October 1, when hundreds of Catalans were injured after confrontations with Madrid’s security forces, according to Catalonia’s Health Department.
Locals and foreigners immediately drew comparisons to the excesses of Franco’s regime. For example, Foreign Policy magazine ran a piece entitled “The Ghost of Franco Still Haunts Catalonia.” More recently, almost 190 intellectuals, politicians and public figures wrote an open letter in openDemocracy claiming the Spanish state had violated the rule of law in Catalonia on October 1.
In the weeks following Madrid’s imposition of direct rule on Catalonia, the central government arrested several separatist leaders, including ousted Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras. Many separatists regard the imprisoned leaders as political prisoners.
Catalan separatists, as well as many other Spaniards, are wary of the country’s judiciary power. John Carlin, a journalist with decades of experience writing for leading Spanish and British publications, referred to Spain’s Constitutional Court (the same one that declared Catalonia’s referendum law illegal) as “notoriously politicized.”
Part of this distrust is rooted in huge corruption scandals that have tainted Spain, and particularly the credibility of the presiding Popular Party (PP), over the past few years. Many Spaniards believe fraud and corruption are among the country’s most pressing problems, according to one of Spain’s leading public research institutes (link in Spanish).
This sense of apprehension is compounded by processes and mechanisms in the nomination of judges or state attorneys. For example, the highest judicial authority in Spain, Carlos Lesmes, who was selected by Rajoy and is the current president of the Supreme Court and the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (the organism in charge of approving the nomination of the State Attorney or the nomination of the Judges that preside the Constitutional Court, among others), was an active member of the Popular Party Government under ex-president José María Aznar (link to El Confidencial).
It may be argued that imprisoned Catalan political leaders are not political prisoners. They were not incarcerated when legally fostering Catalan independence, but for allegedly contravening the Spanish constitution. However, there is a generalized sense among separatists that there is no equality in front of the law in Spain.
Such disbelief is indeed part of the fuel for Catalan independence claims. Whether the Spanish State can change this perception and activate transparent processes and mechanisms might have a big impact in the future of the country and its relationship with Catalonia.