The Spanish government has voted on an Amnesty Law for Catalan independence activists. Catalan activist Anna Stanton, member of the anti-capitalist political party CUP,  reflects on the double-edged nature of the law, and gives historic context of Spain’s repression of internal national independence movements.

Protests in Barcelona on 14 October 2019, after the sentencing of the Catalan independentist politicians. Photo: Freddy Davies.

Spain is no stranger to repression, both in the name of the national-Catholic dictatorship that followed their Civil War and under its 1978 Constitution, approved only three years after Franco’s death. 

Be it against the worker’s unions and the miners during the barely functional Democratic transition of the mid-seventies, or against musicians and poets, or against speakers of one of the many languages of the nations grouped under the Spanish state, it is fair to say that political repression is one of the biggest examples of a country still struggling to adapt to general democratic standards. Spain’s Justice system and Law enforcement are still caught up in the long shadow of Franco’s rule, both under the guise of the fascist national-catholicist dictatorship and the current social democracy, which still upholds some of the same institutions that operated under the 40 years of dictatorship. The political parties that constitute the Spanish political landscape of the 21st century currently back the 2nd article of the Spanish Constitution practically unanimously: ‘The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards.’

Spain is sometimes thrown around as being one of the countries in the world with the most civil wars. Even if this is not completely historically accurate, it remains one of the European countries with the most internal struggles. Both left and right-wing Spaniards have often thrown around the words of German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck: ‘I am firmly convinced that Spain is the strongest country in the world. Century after century trying to destroy herself and still no success.’ Unfortunately for many, these words are not far from the truth. 

The struggle for independence of different territories under the Spanish State is as old as Spain itself, but it was in the 20th century that the defence of a unified Spain became more widely related to a right-wing stance, and that of self-determination (not necessarily pro-independence) a left-wing viewpoint. After the victory of Franco and the nationalist side in the Civil War, the dictator would baptise the country as being ‘Una, grande y libre’ (One, great and free) – more a threat than a statement of truth. The stance on separatism became in some cases inseparable from being either on the National or Republican side, and the prohibition and harsh repression of any of the non-official languages during the dictatorship would come to shape the liberation movements of the different nations under the Spanish state in the second half of the 20th century.

Protest in Barcelona in favour of the first Amnesty Law, 1977. Photo: llibertat.cat.

After the Basque separatist armed group ETA announced their disarmament and change of political strategy in 2006, the Catalan independence movement gained political importance in the second half of the 2010s. The consequences of the illegal referendum on Spain’s political landscape have been one of the main reasons why both Spain and Catalonia have been in the international news. The news of ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s exile was widely reported – what probably didn’t reach people’s screens were the more than 3300 civilians that have been affected by political repression from 2016 until 2019. 

The situation today

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that every Autonomous community has had some sort of claim to independence at one point or another, from Asturias to Andalusia, but there’s no doubt that the two conflicts that have led the public debate on the fragility of the Spanish democracy in the 21st century have been the Basque Country, with ETA’s armed struggle and later for the repatriation of their prisoners, and of course the recent Catalan independence process. While different in strategy, much of the anti-repression movement in Catalonia has borrowed both form and tactics from the Basques, who have been dealing with this kind of targeted political oppression for much longer and in harsher contexts.  Catalan independentists developed similarly solid community-based and decentralized support networks, often with their own lawyers and jurists, that allow them to resist repression and maintain cohesion even in the face of state onslaughts. After the Spanish government sent the Guardia Civil to stop the referendum on 1 October, resulting in acts of police brutality around the country, and repression was widely spread among all kinds of people, these support networks started to leak into the mainstream.

Volunteer medical services attend to an injured person at El Prat Airport. Photo: Victor Serri.

After the pandemic and some years of silence, it wouldn’t be until the 2023 election that the independentist politicians would be in the limelight once again – when the current Spanish prime Minister Pedro Sanchez needed their support to get into office. Without it, the far-right coalition of the PP and VOX would be the safest bet to end up in power, which appeared to finally give the independentists some leverage in their negotiations. Nothing further from the truth – a fully agreed upon and legal referendum was immediately shot down. Instead, what Sanchez offered was something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card to calm the waters: a new bill called the Amnesty Law.

An amnesty – for whom, and for what? The law was pitched by Sanchez’s government as a pardon to all those involved in the independence process. It would be a way to overcome the political conflicts and mend social relations between Spaniards and Catalans, both diplomatic and civilian. The law would not only affect the politicians that were accused of sedition, such as Puigdemont himself, but also a big part of the thousands of civilians who were arrested and identified during the protests all around the country. However, this pardon included both sides. When talking about amnesty Sanchez made it clear that this also included a complete pardon to all the police officers who were identified to have used excessive force and other illegal methods during the interventions in the referendum of the 1st of October 2017 and throughout all the protests. This included the blinding of a man because of the use of illegal rubber bullets at the protest in El Prat Airport in 2019 and uncountable injuries caused by law enforcement.

It’s not the first time Spain has gone through an Amnesty Law: one of the key elements of the Democratic Transition of the 70s was the Amnesty Act after Franco’s death, which freed political prisoners and permitted those exiled to return to Spain, but at the same time guaranteed impunity for those on the National side who participated in crimes during the Civil War, and in Francoist Spain. Not that different from what is right now being voted upon.

Giving amnesty with one hand…

El Prat Airport, banner with the message “Dear visitor, remember that in Spain protesting is terrorism”. 11th of April, 2024. Pic: Òmnium cultural

So, what to make of the law from a socialist and independentist point of view? It’s hard to oppose it completely – many of us have friends, family, comrades, or at the very least know of somebody who has been repressed during these last few years. Some, as is the case of Victor Verdejo, a 27-year-old from Vilanova i la Geltrú (Barcelona), are even already sentenced to years in prison and are on hold from being jailed until the approval of the bill is definite. It would undeniably affect so many people’s lives and save them from doing time, the full number of which isn’t certain even now. Why, then, are those on the receiving end so wary of this bill? Of course, we’ll take the amnesty – but at what cost, and what does this solve?

It’s a complicated topic. For starters, some statistics say that over 60% of Spaniards openly reject passing of the bill, feeling it benefits a certain group of people who should be judged according to the existing laws. For others, such as Alerta Solidaria (Solidarity Alert), the Independentist Left’s anti-repression and judicial organization, to accept this bill would be to abandon completely any aspiration we have left of an actual chance at independence in our lifetime. It’s the ending point: they win, we lose. The underlying reality of the Amnesty law is the understanding that if we say sorry and keep our heads down, maybe we’ll be allowed to walk free – with a soft tut and a condescending reminder: ‘Just sit still and don’t do it again! Remember, if the far-right were in power – you’d have it so much worse!’

As a movement, it is of utmost importance that we try to keep as many activists out of prison as we can. It is equally important that we do not ask repentance of them, for defending the Catalan’s right to self-determination and denouncing Spain’s methods of repression is not a crime. ‘Ho tornarem a fer’ is a slogan being used by some, meaning ‘We will do it again.’ This is not the end and this is not a promise to social peace for the system nor a friendly handshake with a Government that isn’t willing to sit and talk. It’s also important to remember all those who have been jailed or fined for defending anti-capitalist, independentist or internationalist causes in the years before the time frame the bill applies to or even that don’t fit into the small boxes it contemplates. For example, any crime that is considered an act of terrorism will not be included in the Amnesty: there has been no armed struggle in the latest years in Catalonia, yet plenty of people have been accused of terrorism, and there is no guarantee it won’t happen now. Another case that won’t be included is the Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél, a victim of anti-freedom of speech law ‘Ley Mordaza‘ (literally, ‘the gag law’). As of today, Hasél has spent more than 3 years in prison for performing lyrics speaking against the former King Juan Carlos. A total and complete amnesty for all political prisoners, not only independentists but also all communists, anarchists and anti-capitalists, is still the goal we should strive towards. By definition, this can never fully exist under a capitalist regime, nor do we expect Sanchez’s Amnesty Law to be everything it should be. 

The Bill becomes Law?

On 14 March 2024, the bill was finally approved by the Spanish Congress after countless controversies and revisions – with 178 votes for Yes, mainly thanks to the members of Sanchez’s moderate Socialist party (PSOE), their partners in government coalition Sumar (a less radical version of the now declining Podemos) and the two main Catalan pro-independence parties. A close 172 votes for No came from the conservative People’s Party (PP) and far-right VOX.

Even so, it’s unlikely that this will be the last time this bill is up for debate – it still has to pass through the Senate, which has the power to veto it. So, what can we expect? Most likely, the plenary session of the Senate, with an absolute majority of the PP, will veto the law. In that case the bill will have to return to Congress so that the PSOE and its partners can lift that veto and definitively approve the norm if it manages to get approved by an absolute majority. 

So, what’s next for all the political prisoners and activists affected? All we know is that everyone waiting for definite sentencing will still have to put their lives on hold for a while longer: there’s no definite number nor list of names. Whether this will appease the independentist movement, only time will tell – and in a very divided Spain (and Catalonia), it’s unlikely the conflict will be over just yet. With no legal referendum in sight and further negotiations seeming impossible, a solution to the national conflict that satisfies both sides seems more further away than ever. Then again – has it ever existed?

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