Vowing to keep fighting for an independent Catalonia, defiant separatist leaders who were jailed over their role in a failed 2017 bid for independence have walked out of prison after Spain’s government granted them pardons.
The released politicians and activists, who carried a banner demanding “freedom for Catalonia”, were greeted by the pro-independence head of the Catalan regional government, Pere Aragones, amid cheers from supporters.
“There is no pardon that will silence the Catalan people, they will not silence us,” Jordi Cuixart, one of the pardoned separatists and head of Catalan cultural association Omnium, told reporters on Wednesday outside the Lledoners jail, an hour north of Barcelona.
Josep Rull, a former Catalan government official, said: “We will achieve Catalonia’s independence and we will win.”
The nine politicians and activists were sentenced in 2019 to between nine and 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds after an unauthorised referendum on a breakaway that led to a short-lived declaration of independence and Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
The central government pardoned them in a goodwill gesture aimed at kickstarting negotiations on solving the political conflict, though the pardons are conditional and a ban on the leaders holding public office remains in place.
Madrid has ruled out allowing a legal referendum on independence.
“It is not just a question that it is unconstitutional, it is that we can’t keep fracturing the Catalan society,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament, answering calls from separatist legislators for another vote authorized by Madrid.
Meanwhile, conservative opposition parties have renewed their calls for Sanchez to resign over the pardons, arguing the move undermines Spain’s unity.
Opinion polls show just about half of Catalonia’s population favours splitting from Spain.
Catalan separatists are also seeking a broad amnesty for all those with outstanding legal cases related to the 2017 referendum independence bid.
The government has ruled out a blanket amnesty, which would benefit about 3000 people including politicians who fled Spain such as former Catalan regional government leader Carles Puigdemont.