Spain’s parliament gives final approval to amnesty law for Catalonia’s separatists

The controversial law gives amnesty for hundreds of Catalan separatists involved in the illegal and unsuccessful 2017 secession bid. The legislation was backed in the lower house by Spain’s left-wing coalition government, two Catalan separatist parties, and other smaller parties. The amnesty should benefit former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and hundreds of others.

MADRID (AP) — More than six years since Catalonia’s separatist movement took Spain to the brink of rupture, the nation’s lawmakers gave their final approval Thursday to a contentious amnesty for hundreds of secessionists in hopes of putting a definitive end to the traumatic episode.

The legislation was backed in parliament’s lower house by Spain’s left-wing coalition government, two Catalan separatist parties and other smaller parties. It passed by a vote of 177-172, with the conservative Popular Party and far-right Vox opposing it. The right-wing parties consider it a betrayal of the nation for letting the separatists off the hook.

The amnesty could benefit former Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium following the failed October 2017 breakaway bid that he led. It should also help hundreds more, including former government officials and civil servants, average citizens who participated in the secession attempt or protests, and some police officers involved in the crackdown on an illegal independence referendum held by Puigdemont’s government.

The passing of the amnesty law, however, doesn’t immediately clear up the legal mess.

The law is likely to face legal challenges and will be reviewed by higher courts. It also must be applied by courts on a case-by-case basis. There are experts who question its constitutionality, since they say it would create inequality between Spanish citizens by favoring some over others.

Since taking power in 2018, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has focused on reducing tensions in northeast Catalonia, and he argues that the amnesty is key to culminating that process.

But the amnesty was also a political necessity for Sánchez, who agreed to the act of pardon when he needed the support of separatist lawmakers in Madrid to form a new national government in November. It was initially approved in March by the parliament’s lower house, called el Congreso de los Diputados. The Senate, the upper house where right-wing parties hold a majority, vetoed it earlier this month, but the lower house pushed it through regardless.

Tensions ran high in the chamber on Thursday. The vote was by roll call with each lawmaker standing up to vote verbally. An opposition lawmaker shouted “traitor!” at Sánchez after he stood up to vote “yes.”

“In politics, like in life, forgiveness is more powerful than resentment,” Sánchez posted on X after the vote. “Today Spain is more prosperous and more united than in 2017. Living in harmony is the way forward.”

While the amnesty is popular in Catalonia, even among many unionists, the Popular Party and Vox have led protests against it in Madrid and other cities across the country. There have also been critics of the amnesty within Sánchez’s Socialist party.

Popular Party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo tried to shame the Socialists for granting the amnesty in exchange for “seven votes” of Puigdemont’s party that it needed to stay in power. He also warned Sánchez that once it is passed, he should expect little favors from the separatists, whose support is key to keep his fragile government in power.

“This is an exchange of power for privileges and impunity,” Feijóo said.

The long legislative road for the amnesty came to an end a week before start of the European Parliament election, being held in the 27-member EU on June 6-9, and with support for the separatists’ cause fading in Catalonia.

The amnesty covered crimes related to the Catalan independence movement between November 2011 and November 2023. The government estimates that several hundred people could be covered, while the separatists put that figure in the thousands.

After Sánchez pardoned nine leaders of the movement in 2021 who were in prison, there appear to be no separatists currently behind bars. But many face possible prison terms, fines, prohibitions from running for public office or potential trials.

Puigdemont, who had pledged to return home once the amnesty is passed, faces charges of the misuse of public funds in 2017. And in recent months, a Spanish judge opened an investigation into the possibility that Puigdemont was the leader of a shadowy Internet-based group called Tsunami Democratic that organized protests in Catalonia that turned violent in 2019.

In a statement from his residence in Waterloo, Belgium, Puigdemont celebrated the “historic moment” while reminding Sánchez that he had only granted the amnesty because the separatists had forced him to as part of their deal to keep him in office.

“What made it possible today for the Spanish Parliament to vote in favor of the amnesty was not the will of the Spanish political parties ... , it was the stubborn will of the Catalan people to have their decisions respected,” Puigdemont said, without addressing his possible return.

Nor did the parliamentary spokespeople for the Catalan parties have words of gratitude for Sánchez and his government. Instead, they insisted that their next goal would be to push Sánchez to go back on his pledge to never grant them an authorized referendum on independence.

Gabriel Rufían, a lawmaker of the Republican Left of Catalonia, told lawmakers, “Next stop: referendum.”

Voters in Catalonia, however, have backed the Socialists’ policies toward reconciliation.

Sánchez’s party won the most votes in a regional election held earlier this month and is trying to form a new government in Barcelona. If the Socialists take power, the separatists would lose their hold on power for the first time since they began their push to carve out a new Mediterranean state.

___

Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain.