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A criminal or a martyr? Prisoners pose political problems for Spain.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – Off the leafy streets of Barcelona is the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, an organization known in Spain much for literary awards as well as the Dream of the Independent Republic in Catalonia.

But President Jordi Cuixart was nowhere to be found in the past three and a half years.He has been living in a prison cell.

For the Spanish authorities, Cuixart was a dangerous criminal convicted of sedition to lead the rally as he and other separatist leaders tried to establish a divided state in northeastern Khata. Lonia But for his supporters and in the eyes of many foreign nations, he is a political prisoner sitting in the heart of Europe.

“They want us to change our ideals,” Cuixart said, speaking through thick glass on the part of prison visitors last afternoon.

More than three years have passed since Catalonia’s independence movement nearly separated Spain and the politicians in Madrid seem to have triumphed. Most of the isolation schemes are dead. The sound of the clashing pot that was once part of the movement was barely audible at night in Barcelona.

But the Spanish leader, now facing a battle with the coronavirus epidemic, remains politically problematic for many. Cuixart and eight other men jailed for sedition are now the martyrs. According to human rights groups, human rights are being held for nothing more than voicing and expressing their political views.

For the Spanish government – and for Europe as a whole, they have also become a diplomatic headache, accusing them of hypocrisy on regions demanding more democratic freedoms around the world.

This year, Russia claims that Catalonia inmates deflected calls from Europe to release Alexei A. Navalni, leader of the Russian opposition The United States lists prisoners in the Human Rights Report on Spain and calls their imprisonment a form of political intimidation.

Even lawmakers in the European Union, of which Spain are a member, have raised their plight. When the group discussed holding Hungary and Poland responsible for the EU’s rule of law, some European lawmakers noted that Spain was a political prisoner.

The incarceration stems from a long, unresolved conflict over identity, language and rulership of Catalonia with 7.5 million people bordering France.

In 2017, Catalonia was in turmoil when its leaders attempted to hold a regional independence referendum against the Spanish courts. The national government in Madrid sent riot teams that seized the ballot boxes and beat some voters.

The separatists have claimed victory even though more than half of the voters do not vote and opinion polls show Catalonia is separating from independence.

Challenging Congress in Catalonia to move forward and continue declaring independence – only to hold back on its own declaration before the Spanish government is dissolved. By that time Cuixart was arrested and other separatist leaders fled to Belgium.

In 2019, the court sentenced Cuixart and eight others to between nine and 13 years in prison after convicted of sedition.

“He was jailed for exercising his right of expression,” Esteban Beltran, head of the Spanish office of Amnesty International, said of Quasart.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said the case brought painful memories in other independent movements, including the killings by ETA militants who have fought for decades for regional independence. North basque

“They are not political prisoners. These are illegal politicians, ”said Gonzalez Laya.

“The question is, do you have a different ability to express your opinion in Spain? Answer: Yes, do you have the right to unilaterally judge whether you split the country or not? No, ”she added.

But David Bondia, a professor of international law in Barcelona, ​​said the Spanish government was considering an overhaul that would weaken the sedition law, something he sees as a mistake to imprison separatist leaders.

Cuixart’s case is even more problematic from a legal point of view. He is the head of the cultural group. But his sedition trial was conducted within a legal framework reserved for politicians, Bondia said, posing procedural questions.

For Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, who led the push for a referendum, the situation dates back to the days of Franco’s dictatorship, when political opponents lived out of fear of persecution.

“For us this has had a big impact and it has taken us into the past,” he said.

Puigdemont, who is wanted for sedition, fled Spain in 2017 to Belgium, where he served in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was removed in March, leaving him extradited.

Franco’s shadow played a role in the early days of the Omnium, a cultural organization that Mr. Cuixart will lead.

It was founded in 1961 by a group of businessmen to promote the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish government banned it in public. After a while, the Francoists closed the Omnium, and the group went underground.

When Cuixart grew up on the outskirts of Barcelona in the 1980s, Franco died and traces of his regime were wiped out a long time ago, but Cuixart continued to see his cultural intolerance.

One of his first names was Mr. Cuixart. Jordi was the Catalan name of the patron saint of the St. George region, the dragon slayer. But in official documents, Mr. Cuixart is registered under the Spanish name Jorge, a common practice in the country that prohibits the registration of the Catalan name.

“They distinguish it as a threat,” he said.

Cuixart was swept into the Catalan alphabet by the bookstore owner Uncle, who was soon known for his bookstore crowded with poets and political figures. The atmosphere was a “creative hurricane.” Cuixart said it would inspire him for decades.

As a young man, Cuixart entered the world of business by first working in a factory in Barcelona, ​​then saving to open up his own shop. After his profile as an entrepreneur began to increase, he joined the Omnium in 1996.

The group has grown from a secrecy period to become a vital force in Catalan culture. Llúcia revives a literary festival after dark in Barcelona that was banned by Franco and awarded the St.Jordi Prize for best novel written in Catalan.

The Omnium also awakened the sense of nationalism that Mr. Cuixart once again felt as a teenager.

“Being a Catalan is more than a language and a lineage,” he said. “It was a decision to stay here and be here. This is what makes you a Catalan. “

In 2010, the Spanish courts issued a Charter that gave a broader autonomy power four years after the approval of the voters and the regional parliament. The move sparked widespread anger and separatist flags became common in rural areas.

Parliament is soon discussing a movement to declare an independent state, which has long been a dream of extremists.

Mr Cuixart, who in 2015 became president of the Omnium, was at times argued that his group had also joined the push for independence – a cultural organization, not a political one. But in the end, he said, not attending would stand on the wrong side of history.

The big day came to Mr Cuixart on September 20, 2017, when Spanish police sought to stop the independence referendum raided the ministry building in the Catalan region on suspicion that a vote was being held there. But a huge crowd surrounded the place

Independent leaders Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez attempted to mediate between protesters and police. They set up a walkway through the crowd for officers to enter the building and announce that anyone considering the violence was a “traitor”.

Mr Cuixart said last night he feared the fierce clashes. In the recording, he saw him in the car calling for the crowd to disperse. Despite the outcry from the protesters But most of them left the room and Mr Cuixart said he went to bed.

Voting was held amid a crackdown next month, but Cuixart recalled the previous civil disobedience when there was no effect after he dodged his military service as a young man. He thought that this time he had little fear.

But then the accusation arose: Sedition, one of the highest crimes in Spain. Such a harsh bill for protest activities surprised legal experts who said that sedition laws covering less serious crimes than full rebellion were rarely implemented in the country.

“I have to look at what” sedition “is,” Cuixart said.

Cuixart now lives at Lledoners Prison, a prison built for approximately 1,000 inmates and home to drug traffickers and murderers. He said he spent the afternoon meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish European Parliament member who opposed the Catalan independence, said he felt little pity on Mr Cuixart’s situation because the separatists brought the matter themselves.

“I don’t forgive them because they divide our society,” Cañas said, adding that the push for independence continues to divide the Spaniards’ homes. “I have friends that I don’t talk about anymore.”

Mr Cuixart, for his part, said he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it again, he said. It was Spain who wanted to change, he said, not him.

“At some point, Spain had to reflect and ask himself: What are they going to do with me?” He said. “Get rid of me? They can’t “

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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