SANT JOAN DE VILATORRADA, Spain (Reuters) - In condemning Catalan separatist leaders to long prison terms, Spanish authorities have set a precedent that risks criminalizing any form of dissent against the state, one of the leaders said.
Civil rights activist Jordi Cuixart and eight others were last week convicted of sedition over their failed 2017 independence bid and jailed for up to 13 years, terms that convulsed Spain’s political landscape and added new impetus to the secessionist movement. He was imprisoned for nine years.
“I am in jail for defending human rights, not independence,” he told Reuters on Wednesday in an interview from prison.
Cuixart said he remained in favor of Catalan independence and would support another referendum on it, but he criticized the rioting that has marred some of the demonstrations held daily in Barcelona since the leaders were sentenced.
He also accused Spain’s government of neglecting the option of dialogue to resolve Catalonia’s political crisis. Acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has consistently refused to discuss any move by the region toward independence.
Cuixart chairs Omnium Cultural, an organization founded in 1961 to defend Catalan culture under the Franco dictatorship, when public use of the Catalan language was banned.
He does not represent a political party. Seven of the nine leaders were active politically in autumn 2017, when they and others defied courts by organizing an independence referendum.
Cuixart, 44, was convicted of sedition for ignoring court orders by leading a protest against a police operation designed to halt the referendum.
The Constitutional Court had declared the plebiscite, and a subsequent declaration of independence, illegal.
In its ruling on Cuixart’s case, the Supreme Court said protest or dissent “can never justify the unequivocal commission of criminal acts” and found him guilty of sedition as part of an uprising against legal orders through a “tumultuous and collective disobedience accompanied by resistance or force”.
He labeled his sentencing “an atrocity and a nonsense”, saying he had carried out a peaceful act of civil disobedience.
He also drew parallels between Catalonia’s protest movement and the environmental activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and the London-based Extinction Rebellion movement.
“Anything against the state’s interests, through a non-violent action, is susceptible to be considered sedition,” he said through an intercom from behind a glass wall.
Cuixart was speaking from Lledoners prison in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, about an hour’s drive north of Barcelona, where he and six other secessionist leaders are serving their sentences.
Cuixart has been in jail since October 2017 when he and another rights activist - Jordi Sanchez - were detained pending trial following a court appearance.
Cuixart added his voice to calls from others in the independence movement for the jailed leaders, whom he called political prisoners, to be amnestied.
Swiss-based human right group International Commission of Jurists has called the Supreme Court ruling “a serious interference with the exercise of freedom of expression, association and assembly”.
Cuixart praised independence supporters’ refusal to accept the sentences without protest. But he condemned the rioting, in which demonstrators battled police, torched cars and set up burning barricades, introducing a darker element to a previously largely peaceful protest movement.
Reporting by Joan Faus; editing by John Stonestreet