AP Interview: Catalan separatists on hunger strike speak out

SANT JOAN DE VILATORRADA, Spain (AP) — Separatist politicians from Spain’s Catalonia region who are entering the third week of a prison hunger strike say their upcoming rebellion trial will give them a platform to peacefully promote the cause of Catalan independence.

In rare interviews conducted inside a prison north of Barcelona, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Turull repeated their calls for dialogue between Catalonia’s regional government and Spanish government authorities in Madrid. Turull has been in a prison medical ward since Friday.

Their trial, set to begin early next year, will be “a unique moment to denounce the attitude of the Kingdom of Spain contrary to the political and democratic rights in Catalonia,” Sanchez told The Associated Press.

“We are not going to let this opportunity go to waste,” he added.

The pair also rejected depictions of the secessionist movement in the prosperous northeastern region as violent.

Sanchez wore three layers of clothing even though the heating in the prison managed by Catalan government was working. The chill he feels results from not consuming calories, according to Sanchez’s doctor, who said the 54 year-old has lost more than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) since he began fasting on Dec. 1.

Spain says the 22 defendants in the case are being prosecuted not for their ideas but for defying court orders by holding a banned independence referendum in October 2017 and making an illegal attempt to secede.

Some of them have been indicted on charges of rebellion or sedition and face decades in prison in what local media have dubbed “the trial of the century” in Spain’s Supreme Court. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, although the defendants are not expected to appear in court until weeks later.

Two more former Catalan Cabinet members joined the hunger strike Dec. 3, but other inmates from a competing separatist political group, including former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, have chosen not to participate, exposing different approaches within the independence movement.

Catalonia’s banned independence, Spain’s violent crackdown to stop it and a subsequent declaration of independence by Catalan authorities led to an unprecedented seven-month takeover by central authorities of the region of 7.4 million people.

More than a year later, the shockwaves are still being felt across Spain. A political divide is growing between Catalan and Spanish nationalism, a development that has fueled the momentum of a far-right populist party that recently won a dozen seats in Andalusia’s regional parliament.

Turull, a former candidate to become the region’s president, was sent to the Lledoners prison infirmary Friday because his kidneys have been affected after he shed over 13 pounds in two weeks. He said he tricks his body to ignore hunger with nicotine.

Turull said his protest comes with “a sense of responsibility” and he is not looking to starve to death.

“Its end depends on how far our strength takes us and on achieving our goal of calling attention to Spain’s judicial problem,” the 52-year-old lawyer said.

Their aim is to press Spain’s Constitutional Court to rule on appeals about their political rights and their prolonged pre-trial jailing. The strikers think the court is deliberately trying to block them from reaching the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where they hope to expose the judicial flaws they see at home.

The Spanish top court has recently begun to issue some rulings in a series of appeals and says that it’s working as fast as the judicial calendar allows it to in “dealing with the complexity of a case that affects fundamental rights and a careful analysis of criminal law.”

Central Spanish authorities see no reason for the hunger strike.

“Their arguments are false. They will have a fair trial because in Spain the judiciary is independent,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said recently, adding that his government rejects both taking politics to court and “politicizing justice.”

Although Spain’s system of appointing top justices and prosecutors has been questioned inside and outside Spain, those who think it’s working list the numerous sentences against the country’s political and economic elite. One such ruling earlier this year led to Mariano Rajoy’s ousting as prime minister and brought Sanchez to power.

Sanchez, a Socialist, has tried a conciliatory tone, but his approach has not reduced tensions with the Catalan separatists. Hardening rhetoric against the nationalists has spread across Spain’s political spectrum and coincided with the ascent of Vox, a far-right party.

Turull, a longtime secessionist, says Spain’s far right is dragging other parties to its extremism and becoming “a machine of generating tensions” in Catalonia. He also says Sanchez should consider dialogue more than ever, including on the underlying issue of Catalan self-determination.

No prime minister in Spain has agreed to that in the past, arguing it goes against Spain’s Constitution. With polls showing that Catalan society is evenly divided on the issue of independence, Sanchez instead defends more self-government in Catalonia as a solution and says he would rather spend time talking about social and economic policies.

“There are ways to delve into the core issue without anyone having to give up their fundamental positions,” Turull said in the prison visiting room.

But he warned that talks are not going to yield progress if they are done for political gains.

“They should be in the realm of utmost discretion, away from the microphones,” he said.

The jailed politician rejects the idea that taking a weekly central government meeting to Barcelona amid extraordinary security measures next week is “a way of showing affection to Catalonia,” as Sanchez has put it.

Separatists are supporting protests against the Cabinet’s presence in the Catalan capital while jockeying for a meeting between the prime minister and Catalonia’s regional chief, Quim Torra, whose Cabinet has been criticized for not responding effectively to violent protesters.

Turull said those favoring secession “should be stricter than ever against those who make us look bad.”

“We have a red line, which is achieving our goals peacefully, using mediation and dialogue. We are never going to put anybody at risk,” he declared.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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