Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has confirmed that his government will on Tuesday pardon nine Catalan political leaders jailed for their roles in organizing the region’s independence referendum in October 2017.
The nine Catalan politicians all received long prison sentences of between nine and 13 years for sedition, reports Xinhua news agency.
Sanchez announced the decision at an event on Monday called “Coming together again: a forward-looking project for all of Spain” held at Barcelona’s emblematic Liceu Theatre.
“The pandemic has reminded us that we almost always need each other to reach an agreement and someone has to take the first step,” he said.
The Prime Minister stressed that the measure would help “rebuild social harmony from respect and regard”.
“I am convinced that taking nine people from prison, who represent thousands of Catalans, is a resounding message of the will for social harmony in Spanish democracy…
“We cannot start from scratch, but we can start again,” Sanchez added.
But as Sanchez spoke of hopes for “a spirit of dialogue and concord”, separatist protesters in Barcelona clamored for a new referendum on independence, and opposition parties in Madrid threatened to challenge the pardons in court.
“To reach an agreement, someone must make the first step. The Spanish government will make that first step now,” Sanchez told an event in the Catalan capital attended by about 300 members of Catalan civil society but boycotted by its pro-independence government.
Opinion polls indicate that close to half of Catalonia’s population want independence from Spain.
The Catalan independence referendum of 2017 was declared unconstitutional and suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain.
“Catalonia, Catalans we love you,” Sanchez said in Catalan at the end of his speech in Barcelona’s opera house.
But the move could be unpopular and risky.
Polls suggest about 60% of Spaniards are against freeing the politicians and activists. Opposition parties have said they will seek to reverse the pardons.
“Appeasement is not an option, it is only a postponement that grants new strength to the threat,” conservative People’s Party leader Pablo Casado said after Sanchez’s announcement.
Government sources said Sanchez is betting he can use an economic recovery and a successful COVID-19 vaccination program to ride out the ensuing tide of unpopularity and repair any collateral damage before national elections due in 2023.