Spain’s Detention of Independence Leaders Riles Catalans

Spain’s detention of nine Catalan independence leaders continues to stoke tensions ahead of their trials for rebellion. If predictions are borne out, the trials could be another flashpoint in the continuing constitutional crisis between Madrid and Catalonia.

The nine defendants were taken into custody for organizing an October independence referendum that the Spanish government deemed illegal. Madrid had hoped that it had taken the momentum out of the situation by seizing control of Catalonia, dismissing the pro-independence government and holding regional elections in December.

The pro-independence leaders’ detention, however, has sparked strong emotions in Catalonia, even among segments of the population that had not supported independence. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona to demand that the accused be released. If tried and convicted, the nine face sentences of up to 30 years in prison. Currently, no trial date has been set.

WATCH: Spain’s Detention of Independence Leaders Drives Deep Emotions in Catalonia

Public protests, personal struggle

“It is a sad day for us because some people are in prison, but it is also an important day because we have all the people backing us. Nobody can stop this,” said 40-year-old protester Gener Artells, who was among an estimated half-a-million Catalans who filled the streets of the regional capital.

For independence supporters, it is a fight for identity and political freedom. But for Meritxell Bonet, the battle is also deeply personal. Her partner, Jordi Cuixart, the head of the Omnium Cultural Institute and one of the major figures behind the independence bid, is among those charged with rebellion. They have a son who just turned a year old.

Cuixart is being held at the Soto del Real prison outside Madrid, more than 500 kilometers from their home in Catalonia. Every week, Bonet and her young son make the three-hour train journey to the Spanish capital. She estimates they have traveled a total of 30,000 kilometers since Cuixart was jailed in October. The separation is taking an emotional toll.

“My brain is full of things that I should tell him, but for me it’s a very important moment because it’s the only moment when I can construct my family. And we are going to talk a lot about our lives and about our baby.”

Bonet adds that she cannot comprehend a future for her and her son without Cuixart.

“I should be prepared for doing this for a long (time), and at the same time I wish that today is the last time. And I’m always like this, you know, thinking that maybe today is the last time or maybe I should be strong and passionate. We’ll see. I don’t have the answer,” Bonet told VOA outside the prison, where Cuixart and another separatist leader, Jordi Sanchez, are being held.

​Charges from October referendum

The charges against Cuixart and his colleagues stem from police raids that preceded Catalonia’s October 1 referendum. Prosecutors say the attempted secession from Spain amounts to rebellion against the state.

The human rights group Amnesty International disputes that charge.

“The crime of rebellion must be violent, there must be violence, and in this case, there is no sign of physical violence,” said Amnesty’s president in Spain, Esteban Beltran.

Cuixart and his co-defendants have repeatedly appealed for bail, but Spanish courts have refused, arguing that there is risk of “repeat offending.” Meanwhile, their families and supporters continue to wait for the trials.

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