The imprisonment and conviction of the Catalan pro-independence political leaders by the Spanish Supreme Court has been largely criticised by numerous international human rights organizations. Amnesty International, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, amongst others, have published reports pointing out that an overly broad interpretation of the criminal offence of sedition of the Spanish Criminal Code has resulted in violations of human rights.
On 14th October 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court condemned twelve Catalan pro-independence political leaders to punishments of disqualification and imprisonment of between 9 and 13 years. They were prosecuted for having organized the referendum of independence that was held on 1st October 2017 in Catalonia. The referendum, which was rendered illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, ended with a disproportionate use of violence by the Spanish police forces against the voters.
The convicted leaders include former members of the Catalan Government, including its vice president Oriol Junqueras, the former president of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, and social leaders of pro-self-determination associations that organized protests defending the referendum, Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart. Some other political leaders, including the former president Carles Puigdemont, could not be judged because they had taken up exile in Belgium and Switzerland, where the judicial authorities have repeatedly rejected the Supreme Court’s requests of extradition. Since the imprisonment of the leaders, massive protests have taken place in Catalonia to demand their freedom as political prisoners and to denounce the trial as a political trial. Many commentators and international human rights organizations have alleged violations of human rights in the judicial process.
Organizing an illegal referendum is not a criminal offence under the Spanish Criminal Code. Actually, the Spanish Parliament abrogated in 2005 a provision in the Criminal Code that criminalized the organization of illegal referendums because, as the Spanish president at the moment José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said, “it lacked the sufficient gravity to deserve criminal reproval”. How could the Spanish Supreme Court convict the politicians, then?
The criminal offence they were convicted for is sedition. According to the Criminal Code (article 544), sedition is constituted by a “public and tumultuous uprising” with the aim of preventing the application of the law or the realisation by public authorities of their functions. If it is already questionable that the organization of a referendum by a regional government can amount to a “public and tumultuous uprising”, it is even more questionable that organizing protests in defence of such referendum – as Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart did – can be so regarded. As many commentators suggest, an overly broad interpretation of such criminal offences can lead to serious violations of human rights.
Amnesty International has demanded the release of Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart and criticized the whole judicial process. In a report, the international organization denounced that the interpretation of the crime of sedition made by the Spanish Supreme Court resulted in criminalising legitimate acts of protest, amounting to a violation of the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and a breach of the principle of legality. They emphasized that such an interpretation of the Criminal Code might have a dangerous chilling effect, preventing people from participating in peaceful protests.
In the same direction, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations has pointed out that an element of violence should be required to trigger the criminal offence of sedition, and none of the conduct of the convicted leaders could be regarded as violent. The World Organization Against Torture, apart from demanding the freedom of the prisoners, has stated that their preventive imprisonment had been arbitrary.
Other examples of international organizations that have denounced violations of human rights in the trial are Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, Front Line Defenders, the International Federation of Human Rights or EuroMed Rights, amongst others. Some of them have denounced not only violations of rights in the substance of the sentence, but also in the procedure.
The imprisoned politicians intend to bring their case before the European Court of Human Rights. However, the exhaustion of all domestic remedies, which is a requirement for the admissibility of a case (article 35 of the Convention), can take long. Meanwhile, the only way they have to denounce such violation of human rights is to stay involved in politics from prison, and that is what they are doing.