One in a million

A couple of days ago we had a great workshop by a former New York Times editor on how to write an op ed. His first piece of advice was to start with a personal story, preferably with a personal experience that would show how “you were one in a million” to write that op ed.

So let me start with my personal hook: I have known Jordi Sànchez for over 15 years now. Jordi Sànchez is one of the two pro-independence Catalan activists that are now being judged in Spain by the Supreme Court. He has been held in prison without bail since October 2017. In spite of our important political disagreements, I have to say Jordi Sànchez is one of the persons with the highest moral and political standards I have come to meet ever in my life.

But with all due respect to the advice of the former New York Times editor, I think that my personal appreciation and knowledge of Jordi Sànchez is of no relevance whatsoever. The point at stake here is how a state should deal with a major challenge that comes from a peaceful political movement that defends secession.

Jordi is not the only activist in prison. With him in jail since October is also Jordi Cuixart, president of Omnium, whom I don’t know personally. There are also seven other politicians that held positions of institutional responsibility at the time of the events, imprisoned and now being judged. Others are being prosecuted in other courts.

Jordi Sànchez was the president of the ANC (National Assembly of Catalonia). This is a civil society organisation that has taken an active role in the staging of different pro-independence protests in the past years, including the referendum that took place on October 1st 2017 in spite of the ban of the Constitutional Court. He, as the others currently in jail, is accused among other things of rebellion, which involves a violent uprising. The prosecution has asked for 17 years in prison.

I do not know if there were any misdemeanours in the actions of Jordi Sànchez, although, so far, I fail to see how the organisation of pacific political protests can be considered a crime in a democratic state. But what I do know is that a democratic state should be very concerned with the protection of the political and civic rights of *all* their citizens, regardless of their views. Protests may be and often are disruptive, but as long as they are not violent, they are and should remain a fundamental element of democracy. This concern on preserving fundamental political rights is not what I see considering the 16 months of pre-trial imprisonment and the accusations of violent behavior that are manifestly untrue to any witness of Catalan politics in the past years.

The pro-independence movement has made many mistakes. Probably the worst has been the failure to correctly assess and acknowledge the level of support that an independent Catalonia has among the Catalan population. Hence, among other things, the unilateral declaration of independence of the 27th of October 2017, a clear political mistake. I wonder if this declaration would have happened had Sànchez not been already in jail at the time.

The trial that is now being held in Madrid is the demonstration of the failure of political institutions and actors to handle a political conflict through political means. The conflict was both ignored and used politically in a polarizing whirlwind, then left to rot. Now it is contaminating the whole Spanish political landscape.

But this case is also an example of how states’ reaction to political threats may overstep the mark. Some have highlighted the populist drift of the Catalan regionalist parties, with its rejection of the evil Spanish establishment and its idea of an unconstrained popular sovereignty at the centre of political decisions. I can see the argument. One should be warned, however, that populism is not the only threat to liberal democracy. The way states react to populist challenges can also harm democratic rights. The pre-trial imprisonment and the exorbitant two-digit prison requests for implausible felonies seem closer to repression and purge than to due process.

The editor also adviced us to close the op-ed with a solution. I am afraid the time for solutions for this conflict may be very far away, if possible at all. I would settle for just stopping to make things worse.