Spain pressured to free imprisoned Catalan activists

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Politicians and human rights groups urged the Spanish government Tuesday to release imprisoned separatists facing rebellion and other charges from the Catalonia region’s push for independence, including two activists put into 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.

In the evening, hundreds of independence supporters gathered in the regional capital, Barcelona, and outside the two prisons where the separatists are held. The spouses of both activists attended the Barcelona protest flanked by Catalan officials.

“They did not neutralize or weaken him,” Txell Bonet, Cuixart’s partner, told The Associated Press. “On the contrary, he is stronger in his convictions because they are noble and legitimate convictions.”

Human rights group Amnesty International also called for Cuixart and Sanchez’s “immediate release,” describing their time in custody as “excessive and disproportionate.”

The center-left government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is trying to ease tensions in the restive region while enlisting the separatists’ support for his budget in the national parliament, has said it can’t intervene 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

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