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Was the Spanish Supreme Court ruling fair? 

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The Spanish Supreme Court found 12 Catalan secessionist leaders guilty of a different combination of charges including sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience for their roles in the failed push for independence two years ago.  

In 2017, they unilaterally carried out a referendum for independence and encouraged demonstrations to disrupt abidance to the Spanish Constitution. For nine of the defendants, these charges translate into prison terms between 9 to 13 years. Was this decision fair? 

With elections only a month away, all political parties quickly informed their constituents of their position. There were no surprises. The Spanish mainstream parties overall argued that justice was made, whether or not the verdict supported the charges they had originally demanded.

Only the radical right-wing populist VOX condemned the court’s leniency. In Catalonia, secessionist parties found the decision excessively harsh, motivated by vengeance, catered to Spanish nationalists, and all the more reason to work harder towards independence.

Within hours, demonstrators occupied the airport and blocked main roads in Barcelona. In the evening, protesters gathered in many cities for demonstrations that intend to reignite the movement for secession. 

Yet, anyone who followed the trial hearings over the summer could think that this decision would appease Catalan nationalists. After all, charges of rebellion were the focal point in those trials. Did the defendants incite the use of violence in order to overturn the political system?

The gravity of these accusations got all the attention. Rebellion charges not only implied prison sentences of up to 25 years. They also could have heavily curtailed protests rights in the long term, since the accusation’s argument was that these political leaders were responsible for acts of violence perpetrated by any gathered protesters.

Whether civilians were violent and the extent to which the defendants promoted it was centerpiece and heavily highlighted on opposite sides of the argumentation. As such, when the Supreme Court ruled out rebellion charges, and confirmed sedition instead, one may have expected a sigh of relief in the Catalan nationalist sector. But it did not have that effect.  

Sedition implies non-violent attempts to subvert the political system. Few can argue that this is not what the independence movement intended, even if the defense considers the events of 2017 to be well within the rights of protest. But sedition charges also come with lengthy prison terms, even if less so than those for rebellion. This is what Catalan nationalists of any stripe, including those who don’t support independence or don’t support it anymore, will have a harder time accepting. Why should leaders of demonstrations they attended and of a referendum that other democratic countries have been able to celebrate deserve between 9 and 13 years of punishment? To them, the law was broken but the claim for a referendum was legitimate.  

While the court may have ruled according to the law and in accordance to a constitution that bans referendums for independence, its fairness will be judged based on the legitimacy one gives to the acts that it punishes. 

It is hard to envision what will happen in the days and years that follow. The reincarnation of the protests and the mobilization for independence that Catalonia experienced in 2017 seems unlikely. Current demonstrations may dissipate due to the current lack of leadership among secessionists or with reluctance to start all over again. But the long-term effect of this decision depends on whether it becomes part of the Catalan grievance imagery in years to come. 

Gemma Sala is an associate professor and chair of the political science department at Grinnell College.


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