Jailed Catalan leader says Spain wants to 'behead' separatism

Jailed Catalan politician Oriol Junqueras leaves after getting his parliamentary credentials at Spanish Parliament, in Madrid, Spain, May 20, 2019. [Reuters/Susana Vera]

Catalonia’s highest-profile jailed separatist leader accused Spain of trying to behead the secessionist movement with a trial on the region’s failed independence bid, adding that another independence referendum was still a possibility.

Oriol Junqueras, the former Catalan deputy head of government who is jailed outside Barcelona pending a ruling on his role in the 2017’s secessionist bid, answered questions from Reuters ahead of an annual pro-independence march on Wednesday that is expected to reflect the strength and unity of the separatist movement.

“I am convinced that I am innocent and that we have not committed any crime,” said Junqueras, 50, leader of the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party.

“What the (Spanish) state pretends with this (upcoming) sentence is to behead a peaceful movement and, as it cannot detain two million citizens, it locks us up,” he said in written responses conveyed by his legal team.

Junqueras is allowed to use a computer without internet access.

He is one of the 12 Catalan leaders - nine of them jailed - facing charges of rebellion, sedition and misappropriation of public funds for the independence referendum and the botched independence declaration that followed it.

Prosecutors are seeking sentences of 7 to 25 years, the latter only for Junqueras.

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A ruling by Spain’s Supreme Court is expected soon, likely in October. Spanish authorities have repeatedly said the trial was fair and respects the rule of law.

As they have done in massive marches since 2012, tens of thousands of separatists are expected to demonstrate on Wednesday in Barcelona on Catalonia’s annual commemorative day.

Catalonia’s independence drive is at a defining moment after internal divisions have surfaced. They will likely determine the direction and strength of a movement that has overshadowed Spanish politics for years, triggering the country’s biggest political crisis in decades in 2017.

Junqueras said he has no regrets and that he had fulfilled a “democratic mandate” when two years ago Catalan leaders defied a judicial ban by carrying out a secessionist vote and the short-lived independence declaration that followed.

The confrontation saw police wielding batons at crowds seeking to vote and prompted the then-conservative government to impose direct rule from Madrid on the region.

Junqueras said that Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, which was authorized by London, was his preferred option for Catalonia’s next steps.

Asked if he would rule out acting unilaterally again, he said: “We cannot discard any (option) that is democratic and peaceful.” He also repeated that his party had always backed and sought an independence referendum.

A poll published in July by a public Catalan institute showed support for an independent Catalonia at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3% of people against and 44% in favor.

Assemblea Nacional Catalana, the grassroots organization behind Wednesday’s march, minimized the decrease but said the lack of a clear separatist road-map could be to blame at a time when pro-independence parties are divided on what to do next.

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CataloniaSpainOriol JunquerasBarcelona