Divisive Catalan amnesty bill clears parliamentary hurdle in Spain | Catalonia News

Divisive Catalan amnesty bill clears parliamentary hurdle in Spain | Catalonia News

Spain’s lower house of parliament has approved an amnesty bill aimed at forgiving crimes – proven and alleged – by Catalan separatists during a chaotic attempt to hold an independence referendum in the region six years ago.

The MPs on Thursday voted 178 in favour to 172 against in the 350-seat house.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has promoted the amnesty as a way to move past the 2017 secession attempt.

However, the bill has also met opposition from millions of Spaniards who believe that the people who provoked one of Spain’s biggest political crises should face charges, including embezzlement and promoting public disorder.

Sanchez has already pardoned nine jailed Catalan independence leaders, a move that helped heal wounds at little political cost. But the amnesty is proving to be much more divisive.

Secession attempt

The secession crisis erupted when a regional administration led by Carles Puigdemont staged a referendum on independence, defying orders from the national government and a ruling from Spain’s top court that doing so violated the constitution.

Madrid sent in police to try to stop the referendum, and protests against the police deployment turned violent. Some polling stations were unable to open.

The referendum passed, but turnout was low at 43 percent. Nearly four weeks later on October 27, 2017, the Catalan Parliament declared independence, but the declaration failed to garner any international support. Puigdemont and several other senior officials later fled Spain.

Hundreds or thousands of people in Catalonia face the threat of prosecution related to the referendum or protests, and Puigdemont and other leaders remain abroad.

Recent court probes have accused the former regional president of allegedly masterminding massive protests in which demonstrators fought with police and that closed roads, train lines and the Barcelona airport in 2019.

Sanchez, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, agreed to the amnesty to secure the backing of two Catalan separatist parties after an inconclusive national election in July turned them into kingmakers.

The conservative opposition accuses Sanchez of selling out the rule of law in exchange for another term in the Moncloa Palace. It has organised street protests in recent months.

Page-turning ‘reconciliation’

The Socialists’ parliamentary spokesman Patxi Lopez defended the bill on Thursday as a move to seek a page-turning “reconciliation” with Catalonia.

The opposition Popular Party leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo hit back, saying: “This is not reconciliation but submission.”

It was not clear whether the deal will add stability to Sanchez’s minority government. Junts, a separatist party led by Puigdemont, said it would vote for Sanchez to form a government in return for the amnesty and nothing more.

The bill still faces a number of procedural hurdles. The Senate, which has a conservative majority, is expected to reject it, which would mean that parliament’s lower house would have to vote for it a second time to push it through.

Sanchez’s party had a hard time crafting a bill that satisfies the separatists. If passed, the legislation will surely be highly scrutinised by the courts.

Parliament, including Sanchez’s party, voted down an earlier version of the legislation in January when Junts said it did not do enough to protect Puigdemont. The bill then went back to a parliamentary committee, which tweaked it to suit Junts’s needs.

Puigdemont now lives in Belgium, where he has become a European Parliament member. A fugitive from Spanish justice, he calls himself a political exile.

Early elections

Thursday’s vote comes a day after Catalonia’s regional leader called early elections.

That decision added more uncertainty to Spanish politics and led to Sanchez cancelling plans for a 2024 budget because of the difficulty he would have had trying to get the support of the two separatist parties during election time.

Spain granted a sweeping amnesty during its transition back to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

But legal experts are divided over the constitutionality of an amnesty for the Catalan separatists. Its legal critics said it violates the principle of equality among Spaniards by favouring those of one region.

The government said the amnesty could help hundreds of people while the pro-independence Catalan organisation Omnium Cultural said it should benefit about 4,400 people, mostly minor officials and citizens who either helped to organise the referendum or participated in the protests.

The courts would decide the application of the amnesty on a case-by-case basis.

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