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Police and protesters clash in Barcelona for a fourth consecutive day over a problematic, contradictory 9-13 year prison sentence for Catalan independence leaders.

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

Violent clashes between protesters and police continued for a fourth day and night in Barcelona, Spain on Friday. Thousands of protesters had taken to the streets to express their outrage at the lengthy prison sentences that Spain’s Supreme Court handed down against nine Catalan independence leaders on Monday. Protestors blocked many of Barcelona’s main highways and the airport had to cancel 57 flights on Friday. So far, 80 people, including 46 police officers, were injured, and 33 were arrested, according to the Spanish authorities. Here’s what Spain’s acting Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, had to say about the protests during a press conference on Thursday.

PEDRO SANCHEZ: Well, for the acts of violence will be identified and taken before the courts to receive corresponding sanctions. That is, there is no space for impunity in relation to the serious acts of violence we have witnessed over recent days in different cities in Catalonia. To protest must be protected by all public powers. And that is what the Spanish government does. And it should also be exercised in a totally peaceful manner.

GREG WILPERT: The Supreme Court sentenced the Catalan independence leaders to between nine and 13 years in prison for having organized a referendum on independence almost exactly two years ago. The trial took four months and prison sentences were given to Catalonia’s former Vice President Oriol Junqueras, former Catalan Foreign Minister Raul Romeva, Labor Minister Dolors Bassa, and Regional Government Spokesperson Jordi Turull; among many others. An international arrest warrant was also issued against Catalan’s former Regional President, Carles Puigdemont, since he is in exile in Belgium at the moment.

Joining me now to analyze the latest developments in Spain is Sebastiaan Faber. He is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College and author of the book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Welcome back to The Real News Network, Sebastiaan.

SEBASTIAAN FABER: Great to be back.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with what Monday’s Supreme Court sentence against the Catalan independence leaders means. What’s your assessment of this ruling?

SEBASTIAAN FABER: Well, there’s really three things that I think are worth highlighting in this sentence. The first one is that the court concluded that the initial charge of rebellion did not hold. This charge was brought two years ago, in late October ’17, by the then-Attorney General charging a group of Catalan activists and political leaders with sedition, rebellion, and malfeasance. The court concluded the rebellion did not hold. And this is ironic because it was that charge of rebellion – of the attempt to violently overthrow or undermine the existing order – that justified bringing this case to the national Supreme Court in the first place. Had the charge of rebellion not been part of the package, it could have been tried at the Catalan Supreme Court. That’s interesting that the court rejected that charge.

Secondly, the court concluded, along with the defense of the people on trial, that what had happened two years ago – the referendum and the subsequent declaration of independence – were really nothing more than symbolic gestures meant to put political pressure on Madrid to force the national government in Spain to the negotiating table and talk about the status of Catalonia in Spain. So the court acknowledged that secession, actual secession, actual independence, was never really a danger that the Spanish state faced, and that the Spanish state never really lost control of the situation. Third, despite all this, the court still decided to find nine of the 12 defendants guilty of sedition. And furthermore, charged them almost to the maximum extent of the law for this act of sedition.

Now, what has sparked widespread concern, not just in Catalonia but all across Spain, is the extent to which this reading of the notion of sedition, which is in the Spanish criminal code, actually infringes on the constitutional right to peaceful protest, so that, in any given situation, for example, if a group of citizens prevents let’s say an eviction, which is also preventing the authorities from carrying out a judicial order, which was happening in Catalonia, that could now also be read as sedition. So there’s a widespread concern that this sentence is a further step to undermine constitutional rights to freedom of expression, freedom for the right to peaceful protest, and things like that in Spain. Let me point out that the indignation felt at this sentence is not limited to those Catalonians who are in favor of independence, which according to the polls is a little bit less than half of the 7.5 million people living in Catalonia.

But the impression that this was an unjust trial–that the sentence is more than anything an act of revenge of the Spanish Judiciary toward Catalonia–that impression is spread more widely than just among those in favor of independence. Another point that’s interesting to point out is that, in a way, the defense and the sentence left the Catalan political leadership sort of exposed as the emperor without clothes, because the promises that were made in October ’17 and leading up to the referendum, were clearly empty promises. Because as the defense itself admitted, it was really all symbolic. Independence was never really on the table as a real prospect. So it’s interesting to think about; what is the current role of the Catalan government in relation to the protests?

And what we have seen is kind of a form of schizophrenia. On the one hand, the Catalan president, Torra, has supported and called for protests against this sentence, which he also agrees is unjust and illegitimate. On the other hand, the same Catalan government that he presides has sent the police–the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra–out to squash these widespread protests, which in the beginning of that week involved physically occupying the Barcelona airport. And since then it has involved blocking railways, blocking freeways, and especially later at night, among smaller groups, setting trash containers on fire and a couple of cars. And so, the same government that declares itself in disagreement with the sentence and that calls for protests against the sentence, is mobilizing in a real harsh way the Catalan police force itself to squash those protests. And the images we’ve seen are reminiscent of the images from 10 years ago where you see basically riot police clubbing and violently acting against protests that often start out peaceful that, in part through this harsh police repression, become violent.

In addition to that, we’ve seen a further escalation among citizen groups. So out of the woodworks, we’ve seen appear far right groups of often young people with clubs or even knives trying to, quote unquote, “hunt down” independence protesters who are protesting against the sentence. So we’ve seen basically a further escalation of violence, all of which was entirely predictable because it was inevitable that a sentence of this kind would spark widespread outrage in Catalonia.

GREG WILPERT: All right. So I want to turn now to the issue of the upcoming elections. I mean, Sanchez took over via a parliamentary no-confidence vote against the Rajoy government in June of last year; of 2018. And then in April of this year, there were new elections that took place in which Sanchez’s socialist party failed to win an absolute majority and couldn’t find an agreement for a coalition agreement with Unidas Podemos, the party that’s to the left of the socialists. So now there will be another election held on November 10th. How do you think that these protests and the Catalan issue will play out in the upcoming election?

SEBASTIAAN FABER: What we’ve seen so far is that the failed negotiations that you just mentioned, in addition to the escalation around the Catalan issue, has been strengthening the right. So the traditional conservative party, the Partido Popular, the Popular Party, has been rising in the polls after a long time in which it had been declining. The socialist party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, which is really a social democratic party, the mainstream social democratic party, has steadily moved to the right in the past year or so on socioeconomic issues. So it’s widely understood that its “inability” to come to an agreement with Unidas Podemos was really an unwillingness to move to the left on important socioeconomic issues around labor laws, around taxation, and things like that.

But it’s moved more steadily to the right on socioeconomic issues as well as in the territorial issue. In the weeks leading up to the sentence that everybody knew was to come down in early or mid-October, the Sanchez government unleashed an international campaign to boost Spain’s image as what they call a “consolidated democracy” with all freedoms that any democracy needs. So tried to preemptively counteract the likely interpretation from abroad that sentencing nine activists and politicians to years in jail for defending their ideas and trying to redefine Spain’s territorial make-up, would have a negative impact on Spain’s image abroad. What that means in practice is that the Sanchez government has painted itself into a corner of denial.

At this point, it’s hard for them to acknowledge that there are real issues around Spain’s territorial make-up, there are real serious issues with the way in which a political problem has become a judicial problem. Like I said earlier, this was initiated by the conservative party, but the socialist party has let itself move along in that direction. So every time that Sanchez says, “Spain is a consolidated democracy. The Catalan problem, it’s really a problem among Catalans rather than between Catalonia and Spain,” he is denying the fundamental nature, the fundamental political and Spain-wide nature of the issue, and further pushing any negotiated solution away. But I think, to go back to your question, in the short term, for these elections that are going to be happening on November 10th, it looks like the further escalation around Catalonia will help strengthen the right more than anything else.

GREG WILPERT: Now, the current president of Catalonia, Quim Torra, is calling for new independence referendum. First of all, is there any chance that this will happen? And secondly, what are other parties, particularly I’m thinking of Unidas Podemos, reacting to that idea? I mean, their relationship to the independence movement has been rather complicated in the past. So how are they dealing with the current situation?

SEBASTIAAN FABER: Quim Torra has called for a referendum in the short term. And that I think will not happen, in large part also because the other pro-independence parties in Catalonia don’t see that as an option. They’ve already said they don’t think that’s a feasible idea. In the long term, in the really long term, I agree with many that, at one point, a referendum is inevitable. The only way to bring closure to this issue is to acknowledge that the people who live in Catalonia have the right to vote on whether they want or not to become independent. I think when push comes to shove, a majority will not vote to separate from Spain, but at least that will bring closure to the issue, like it did in Scotland, and to some extent, in Canada as well.

However, for something like that to occur, many things have to happen in the national government in Madrid that include an acknowledgement on the part of mainstream parties that this is a real political problem that cannot be solved through the courts. It cannot be solved by criminalizing people who are in favor of independence. It cannot be solved by sending out the police when millions of people take to the streets. It cannot be solved by calling acts of peaceful protest, “terrorism,” or “sedition.” All that has to be come to terms with first before an actual dialogue can occur that may result in a referendum of some kind.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but as usual, we continue to follow this situation. I’m speaking to Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. Thanks again, Sebastiaan, for having joined us today.


GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Sebastiaan Faber is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. He is the author of the book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War.