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Opposition praises sacking of general who slammed Catalan separatists

Officer used editorial in military publication to criticize premier Artur Mas’ drive for independence

The opposition Socialists on Sunday applauded a decision by the defense minister to sack an army general for writing an editorial in a military magazine in which he openly criticizes Catalan premier Artur Mas and his independence drive for the region.

Nearly seven years after another general was sacked for suggesting that the army should intervene if Catalonia’s new regional autonomy statute breached the Constitution, the Popular Party (PP) government has now had to face similar dissenting opinions by some military officers over the region. Last Tuesday Defense Minister Pedro Morenés removed Brigadier General Ángel Luis Pontijas Deus from a policy-making body for expressing his opinion about Catalonia in the magazine Ejército, which is the ground force’s official publication.

In an editorial, Pontijas wrote about “the discourtesy of the premier of the ‘Generalidad’ who took advantage of a certain day [October 12] to once more express the Catalan people’s independence intentions, which are doubtful.”

By law, military officers in Spain cannot publicly express their opinions on politics

The retired general serves as the magazine’s editor but still has to follow military rules of conduct. According to an army spokesman, it wasn’t what Pontijas wrote that caused his dismissal, but instead where the opinion was published: in an official publication that could be interpreted as the army’s official position.

By law, military officers in Spain cannot publicly express their opinions on politics.

Diego López Garrido, the Socialist spokesman in Congress for defense issues, said the government acted “appropriately” and “swiftly” by sacking Pontijas. “The army doesn’t have any such opinions. The government and Congress both have opinions about this, but the army, never,” he said.

The Socialists under Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had to deal with a similar but more serious incident when the government ordered the arrest of then-Lieutenant General José Mena, who made a speech during the annual armed forces Christmas celebration in which he suggested that military intervention might be necessary to quell Catalan demands for increased home rule.

After the speech on January 6, 2006, the Defense Ministry placed him under house arrest. Mena was then demoted and replaced by Lieutenant General Pedro Pitarch as head of Spain’s ground troops.

But at the same time, the rightwing daily La Razón published a letter signed by 50 retired officers from the armed forces who stated they supported Mena’s speech.

On Monday, Military Officers for Democracy president Juan Manuel Molina congratulated Pontijas for “freely expressing his opinion in writing.”