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Jailed Catalan independence leaders admit October referendum was illegal

Ex-interior chief and activist say they will give up seats in parliament if unilateral route is pursued

The Spanish Supreme Court.
The Spanish Supreme Court.

In a blow to former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, key figures in the independence movement who are currently in pre-trial custody over charges including rebellion and sedition have said in court they will not support attempts to resume a push for unilateral independence for the region.

Forn admitted he had participated in the October 1 referendum knowing it was illegal

Former regional interior chief Joaquim Forn and the leader of the pro-independence civic group National Catalan Assembly (ANC), Jordi Sànchez, both members of Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya ticket, on Thursday told Spain’s Supreme Court they would give up their seats in the new regional parliament if it continued with the secession push that culminated in the chamber passing a unilateral declaration of independence in late October, in defiance of Spain’s Constitutional Court.

Madrid responded to that declaration by using emergency constitutional powers to sack the regional government and call a snap election on December 21. Pro-independence parties then went on to win a combined majority of seats. Those parties are now negotiating the possible shape of a new government while Puigdemont is pushing to be sworn in remotely as regional premier despite the fact he is in Brussels and faces arrest in Spain over his own role in the independence push.

But Puigdemont now finds himself increasingly isolated after Sánchez, Forn and Jordi Cuixart, the head of another pro-independence civic association, Òmnium, told the Supreme Court they were stepping back from the precipice. All three are in pre-trial custody over their role in the events of September 20 and September 21, when protestors outside the Catalan government’s department of economic affairs vandalized Civil Guard patrol cars and hindered the work of officers searching for material destined for the illegal October 1 independence referendum .

Demonstrators outside the regional economy department in Barcelona on September 21, 2017
Demonstrators outside the regional economy department in Barcelona on September 21, 2017 EFE

Forn and Sànchez said they still planned to take possession of their seats in the parliament but only if their party takes a less hardline approach to independence, while Forn also said he would not take on any ministerial role in a new cabinet.

According to sources in court, Forn drew lines between his desire for independence in Catalonia, the steps taken by the former government to achieve this aim, and the actions of the Catalan police force – the Mossos d’Esquadra, a force for which he was, as Catalan interior minister, ultimately responsible. The ousted minister said he had never given “orders” or “instructions” to the force intended to help facilitate the October 1 referendum. He also attempted to distance himself from the actions of the Mossos by saying he had not been directly involved in “operative” decisions.

Critically, Forn admitted he had participated in the October 1 referendum knowing it was illegal.

For his part, ANC leader Jordi Sànchez said he did not believe independence for Catalonia could be achieved via the unilateral route. He also admitted the October referendum results were not legally binding and that “from February 2015 there had been a road map with ANC, Òmnium, the CDC (the predecessor of PdeCAT) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC)” for independence in Catalonia.

Sànchez said that while there had been acts of “vandalism” during the independence push, there had been no “violence”

But Sànchez said that while there had been acts of “vandalism” during the independence push, there had been no “violence” – a key point given that the crime of rebellion, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in Spain – entails a “violent and public uprising” against the Constitution.

Symbolic value

Meanwhile, Òmnium leader Jordi Cuixart told the court that the “only” valid referendum on independence could be one called by the Spanish central government, and said the October 1 vote had “symbolic” value only.

According to court sources, Cuixart also said that “less happened than could have [been the case]” on September 20 and 21. These are the dates highlighted by the Supreme Court Justice Pablo Llarena as the days on which the greatest “explosions of violence” occurred in the run-up to the independence referendum. They have also been cited as one of the reasons why Forn, Sànchez, Cuixart and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras are likely to reoffend and should not, therefore, be released from pre-trial custody.

Jordi Cuixart (l), leader of Òmnium, and Jordi Sànchez of ANC as they arrive at the High Court in Madrid.
Jordi Cuixart (l), leader of Òmnium, and Jordi Sànchez of ANC as they arrive at the High Court in Madrid. Reuters

These four independence leaders are now the only remaining suspects being held in pre-trial detention as part of a wide-ranging Supreme Court investigation into the Catalan independence push.

English version by George Mills.

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