After 18 failed attempts to reach an agreement with the Spanish government on a negotiated self-determination referendum, the Catalan Government organised a self determination referendum on 1 October 2017. Despite the precedents of Quebec and Scotland, and the fact that 80% of the people in Catalonia support holding a referendum, it met the frontal opposition of the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy, with the highly politicised Spanish Constitutional Court declaring that it could not take place.
The Spanish government then deployed some 15,000 police officers drawn from across Spain to Catalonia, with orders to block the vote. They were deployed across Catalonia and, on the day of the referendum, they smashed polling stations, physically pulling peaceful voters from polling stations, removing ballot boxes and beating voters waiting in line to vote with batons, which resulted in 1,066 people injured. The images captured by foreign journalists covering the referendum shocked the world. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch later issued reports and statements qualifying the police violence as excessive. The U.N’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe have both asked for an impartial investigation of the excessive Spanish police violence that day, yet more than two and a half years later, no effective investigation has been carried out. On the contrary, the officers who commanded the police brutality have been promoted and awarded.
During the days leading up to the referendum there were several searches, arrests and seizures of campaign and voting material, as well as continuous attacks on press freedom that involved police searches without a warrant and the illegal shutting down of websites. Òmnium Cultural, who carried out a campaign in support for the referendum called “Crida per la Democràcia” (Call for Democracy), also suffered this repression: its website was shut down, and its monthly magazine was seizured. This hostile climate continued throughout the day of the vote, on 1 October 2017, with hundreds of cyberattacks and the confiscation of dozens of ballot boxes and thousands of ballot papers. Nevertheless, at the end of the day 2.2 million votes were counted (43% of the electoral census) with a result that was clearly favourable to independence (90%).
The ensuing symbolic declaration of independence by the Parliament of Catalonia 27 October was met with a harsh wave of repression from the Spanish government, which suspended Catalonia’s self-government institutions, ousted the Catalan democratically elected government and hundreds of senior officials, and called for new elections in December 2017. Òmnium’s headquarters were twice searched by the Spanish police.
TRIAL ON DEMOCRACY
In the judicial sphere, with thousands of individuals and public officials on trial for having supported the referendum, the first to be imprisoned by order of the exceptional Audiencia Nacional court were the leaders of Catalonia’s two largest civil society organizations: Jordi Cuixart (president of Òmnium Cultural) and Jordi Sànchez (president of the Catalan National Assembly – ANC), on 16 October 2017. This arrest warrant was later upheld by the Spanish Supreme Court. The initial felony charge of sedition was for having “incited” the spontaneous demonstration that took place in front of Catalonia’s Ministry of Economy during the search of the Vice-President’́s office, which was carried out by Spanish police on 20 September 2017. The charge neglected the right to peacefully protest and the role of the NGO leaders in keeping things calm and eventually calling on the protesters to disperse, with full permission of the police to climb on top of a police car to speak to the protesters.
The politicisation of the trial was denounced by U.N. Special Rapporteurs and NGOs like Amnesty International, Euromed Rights and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The Audiencia Nacional court, which is the one that ordered the pre-trial detention, is a direct heir of the Extraordinary Courts from the 40-year Franco dictatorship. The lack of separation of powers, and the clear politicisation of Spanish courts has been widely questioned by international human rights organisations. In addition to the charges made by the Spanish Public Prosecutor and State Attorney, a second felony charge of rebellion was brought at the request of the Spanish far-right party VOX, which has links to far-right parties in Europe and the United States.
The trial of the Catalan political prisoners in Spain’s Supreme Court proceedings officially ended on 12 June 2019. A unanimous verdict by the seven judges that tried the case was made public on 14 October 2019. While the Court dismissed the charges of rebellion, 9 of the 12 accused were convicted of sedition and given sentences ranging from 9 to 13 years. Four were also found guilty of misuse of public funds.
The verdict delivered by the Supreme Court sparked multiple protests across the region which were harshly suppressed by the police. The police repression provoked the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, as well as Amnesty International to call on the Spanish authorities to de-escalate the political conflict and to stop the police violence against demonstrators as well as the journalists who were covering the public protests against the sentence.
On 19 December 2019 Òmnium Cultural publicly presented a report called “The Map of Repression” which outlines since 20 September 2017 there have been more than 2,500 people who suffered violence at the hands of the Spanish police with 1,396 people injured and 292 detained for simply demonstrating.
The repression of citizens’ rights to assemble and speak, along with the still ongoing dozens of court cases which are part of the judicialisation of this political crisis don´t stop. Just since the start of 2020 nine more criminal trials have been scheduled, in addition to the cases that already begun on 2017.
On 30 January 2020 the Spanish Public Prosecutor’s office refused to grant Jordi Cuixart the scheduled prison leave he was entitled to, arguing that he has shown “the lack of assumption of the criminal facts and the absence of repentance”, as well as maintaining that it is inappropriate for him to have any leave given “the absence of prison treatment to overcome the deficits detected.” This argument from the Public Prosecutor’s Office based on Jordi Cuixart’s refusal to plead guilty to crimes he did not commit violates the presumption of innocence and ideological freedom, and under the Spanish legal system no one is obliged to plead guilty. This is another example of the criminalisation of the fundamental rights to protest and freedom of expression.
Òmnium Cultural has maintained its role as a mobilising force, jointly organising peaceful marches and mobilisations in support of the political prisoners, exiled and all the defendants.