Criminalising political opposition in Catalonia

This week, the trial of the Catalonian political prisoners begins in Spain.  As the drama unfolds in front of the world, behind the scenes the Guardia Civil and the Spanish National Police will continue to round up less well-known activists for their political ”crimes”.   The criminalization of political opposition is not merely confined to the prisoners currently on trial, but is in danger of becoming a routine response, part of the modus operandi of the Spanish state.  We noted how such practices were targeting the anti-capitalist left in an article in Red Pepper last June.  This relatively hidden, ongoing targetting  has continued. Three weeks ago, the left-wing mayors of the Catalan towns of Verges and Celrà were arrested in a dawn raid along with a journalist from the magazine La Directa and 13 other activists. They were arrested for organising peaceful protests demanding the release of political prisoners who are on trial this week. One of the most striking thing is that these 16 arrests were not ordered by a court – as is normal in such cases – but by a highly secretive unit of the Spanish national police dedicated to gathering intelligence on threats to the state.

The mayor of the Verges, Ignasi Sabater, is getting used to this treatment.  Several months ago he was brought in front of a court and accused of “hate crimes” and “discrimination” against “the Spanish nation and the corps of the Guardia Civil.”  Bizarre as it might seem, his experience is not unique. Numerous ordinary people who have dared to condemn police violence – or even talk about it in public – have been hauled in front of the judiciary, facing prison for “hate crimes” against the Spanish state.

The formal charge may seem bizarre, but it is an increasingly frequent one in the Catalonian conflict.   Some witnesses have been charged with such “hate crimes” for posting Facebook statements and teachers have been charged with the same offence for daring to discuss the violence of the Spanish National Police and the Guardia Civil in school classrooms.  If this article was to be published in Spain, it is quite possible it would be defined by the authorities as a “hate crime.”

As we note in our new book Building a New Catalonia, many of the contributors are incredibly brave, since they risk criminalization for their peaceful actions or merely for expressing their political aspirations in words.  One of them, Carles Riera, a member of the Catalan Parliament is under investigation by a criminal court protesting against the detention of people from the Committees to Defend the Referendum.  Another contributor, Jordi Cuixart, is in prison and will be on trial this Tuesday. And another, Anna Gabriel, former parliamentary leader of the CUP party, is in exile in Switzerland.

It is one of the central tenets of any democratic system that political opposition is tolerated and that the criminal law is not used for overtly political purposes.  It is now impossible to discern a formal segregation between the machinery of the law and the machinery of government in Spain. Shortly before the last election for the Catalonian Parliament, in December 2018, a list of 31 high profile leaders was passed by the Guardia Civil to the judge leading the Spanish Supreme Court investigation the 1st October referendum.   The document set out how each of them charged would be charged ‘rebellion’ and ‘sedition’, exactly the same offences that the political prisoners due to go on trial on the 12th February are being held for.

This situation would be remarkable enough if it were only high-profile leaders who were singled out for political show trials.  But the scale of criminalization is incredible. A report published last year in Catalonia by 5 local councils (The Minotaur of ’78) revealed that in a 3 year period,  832 people have been charged by Spanish authorities with rebellion, sedition or ‘offences against the Crown’.  Most are elected representatives; 712 of those charged are town mayors.

The Spanish government is deliberately using a tactic of criminalisation to depoliticize what is essentially a political struggle. In this sense, using the law against the seditious is a well worn tactic: a weakened state seeks to reassert its sovereignty through the arbitrary use of law.   At the same time, opponents are dismissed as criminal, people that cannot, and certainly should not, be bargained with. This is the utility of criminalization: to remove the political content from the dispute.

Despite the growing authoritarianism of the Spanish state, it is still not at all clear who is in really in control in Catalonia.  The question of policing had symbolized the constitutional crisis in the weeks running up to the referendum when Madrid effectively launched a coup against the Catalonian government and took unilateral control of the administration.  It found itself in, quite literally, what Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben would call a “state of exception” in which the normal constitutional order is completely paralysed to enable the sovereign to assert absolute control.

The problem for the Spanish state is that it remains paralyzed by the same state of exception that it imposed in October 2018.   Madrid still really only has two choices. The first is to accept a permanent state of exception in Catalonia and maintain a strategy of criminalisation that allows it to claim the situation is too unstable for normality government to be resumed.  Or second to release the political prisoners, drop all political charges and agree to allow a referendum to be run peacefully, without resort to violence. The latter could not be regarded as particularly radical demands for a democratic state. On Sunday all of the major right wing parties held a demonstration of 45,000 people in Madrid calling for the dismissal of the Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez just because the government is keeping lines of communication open with the Catalonia government. This is the extent to which a very extreme and intolerant Spanish nationalism is gripping mainstream politics.

What is happening in Catalonia is astounding by any standard of democracy. It is nothing short of remarkable that the justice system in a modern European state can proceed in this way, with lists of political opponents who are lined up for arrest and immediate imprisonment. If this level of repression was happening anywhere else in the world, European politicians would be lining up to condemn the Prime Minister and demand the release of all political prisoners immediately.  The regular arrests of political opponents are part of a very deliberate net-widening campaign on the part of the Spanish government in which the criminal justice system has been politicized to an extent that would probably not be possible in any other European country.

Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte are the authors of Building a New Catalonia: Self-Determination and Emancipation, forthcoming from Bella Caledonia and Pol:len.

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