Spain faces calls to release Catalan activists from jail

October 16, 2018 - 9:05 am

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalan politicians and human rights groups on Tuesday urged the Spanish government to release jailed separatists, including two prominent pro-independence activists placed in pre-trial detention a year ago.

Catalan regional president Quim Torra, who favors independence from Spain, paid a visit Tuesday to Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, leaders of civil society groups ANC and Omnium Cultural respectively. Both played a key role in bolstering public support for a banned vote on independence held last year in Catalonia, a prosperous industrial and tourism hub in northeastern Spain.

An evening protest calling for their freedom is scheduled later on Tuesday in the regional capital, Barcelona, and the non-profit rights group Amnesty International has called for the activists' "immediate release," describing their jailing as "excessive and disproportionate."

But the center-left government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is trying to ease tensions in the restive region while enlisting the separatists' support to his budget in the national parliament, says it can do nothing because the case is in the hands of judges.

Sanchez and Cuixart were jailed on Oct. 16, 2017, just over two weeks after the banned referendum. First accused of possible sedition for their role in a tumultuous protest that hindered police efforts to stop the vote, their detention was prolonged with rebellion charges, which under Spanish law implies the use of violence.

In court appearances during the investigation, both advocated for peaceful activism and claimed they climbed on police cars the night of the protest only to call for the crowds to refrain from acting with violence.

Five pro-independence leaders, including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, fled overseas when the probe targeted them, while seven more separatists were also jailed and await trial.

Amnesty International's statement this week only called for the release of Sanchez and Cuixart, with no reference to the other separatist leaders. The non-profit group said the rebellion charges, which can be punished with decades behind bars, are "unjustified and, therefore, should be dropped."

The minority Socialist administration needs support from small and regional parties, including the Catalan separatists, to pass next year's national budget in the parliament's lower house, a key step for Sanchez's ambition to remain in office until the current term ends in 2020.

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Parra reported from Madrid