Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia: the trial will be about our ideological freedom

"This case is not about proving that specific acts constitute an offence. It is about the deactivation of an independence movement and of its leadership."

Krystyna Schreiber
26 January 2019

Carme Forcadell speaks in the Catalan Parliament after Rajoy announced the suspension of Catalan autonomy, October 2017. Jordi Boixareu/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

In December 2017, Carme Forcadell received journalists in her fine wood-panelled office where photographs on the shelves told the story of the tireless commitment of the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, as she then was, to her beloved Catalonia. For years Forcadell had drawn a devoted following as president of the ANC, one of the biggest civil society organizations pushing for independence. Then, in 2015, the dream of her many supporters came true when an activist like her was elected to the highest public office. Her opponents, however, saw her as "ideologically inflexible". 

Today Carme Forcadell is sitting behind a glass partition, dressed in a grey suit, and speaking rapidly into a telephone handset as if worried that the prison guard might grab it out of her hand. Mas d’Enric prison, where Forcadell has been remanded in custody awaiting trial since July, houses around 700 men and 30 women who are serving lengthy prison sentences, many for violent crime or drug offences. It is a dull, grey concrete construction. Visitors pass through a filter system, consisting of eight security gates made of steel bars, successive corridors, two buildings and a large empty courtyard, before entering the visitors' area packed with what feels like a hundred glass booths. 

She is as well as “can be expected under the circumstances”, Carme says into the mouthpiece. She looks fragile as she speaks. She has crossed off on a paper calendar each of the 280 or more days which she has spent in pre-trial custody. "Just like in the army", she jokes drily. This prison designed for men, located not far from Tarragona, is particularly tough, she says. She chose it because it is the only one close to her 90-year old mother and her grandchildren. 

In Madrid, where she was in prison along with the former Catalan minister Dolors Bassas the regime was more relaxed with open cells. In Mas d’Enric Forcadell spends 16 hours a day confined to her 15 square metre cell. At night she is locked in. The other inmates have little in common with their MP fellow-prisoner. Here the ex-Speaker is one woman among many, whom she describes as "different" and "in some cases extremely aggressive". In the daily prison routine, no distinction is drawn between her, remanded in custody awaiting trial, and convicted criminals. 

Fear of an unfair trial 

If the forthcoming major trial against the leaders of the independence movement finds the 63-year old guilty of rebellion, she faces many years in prison. Had she taken prison into account when she deliberately ignored the orders given by the Constitutional Court? "When I stood for election on the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) list in 2015, I never thought that I would end up in prison three years later", Forcadell replies. At most, she expected a charge of contempt of court, but never of rebellion. The peaceful ethos of the independence movement was generally acknowledged. "I allowed a debate in Parliament. I made sure that no Court could censor the will of Parliament. I cannot understand what that has to do with rebellion", she says. 

Is she afraid? Forcadell hesitates: "I am afraid of not getting a fair trial". The State Prosecutor based his case solely on the report by the Civil Guard. "The charges even repeat the same mistakes, for example giving the wrong years for my activities in the ANC. On the other hand, none of my statements before the Court has been taken into account", she explains. Nor can she follow the logic of why her vote in the Bureau of Parliament should count for more than those of her colleagues, who have been charged with mere contempt of court for exactly the same decisions. 

And there is no justification for the long pre-trial detention, she says. Forcadell had paid bail of 150 000 euros and scrupulously met all the conditions imposed by the Court for months. In her opinion, the reason why she was nonetheless sent to prison almost five months later was that she was continuing her political activities as an MP: "The situation did not change in the slightest between 22 March, when I voted as an MP in the investiture of the President of the Catalan Government, and 23 March, when I was put in prison." All five MPs facing charges were placed in custody at the same time, including the nominee for President. "They clearly have an interest in keeping us in prison," Forcadell says into the telephone. 

After our visit, Forcadell's lawyer, Olga Arderiu, adds that she thinks her client has good reasons to worry. Never, in 20 years of legal practice, has she come across the politicization of justice like this. She confirms that there is no legal argument why Forcadell should be charged with rebellion and the others accused of the same decision with contempt of court. Moreover, the entire charge rests on alleged violence on the day of the referendum declared illegal by the Constitutional Court and during the protests outside the Catalan Ministry of Economic Affairs on 20 September 2017, which in neither case was on the scale defined in Spanish criminal law following the attempted coup in 1981. 

Carme Forcadell sees one clear reason behind the charge of rebellion and it is not because of her decisions as Speaker of Parliament: “I am here because I was President of the ANC. That is the only qualitative difference between me and my colleagues and, in my view, the only objective explanation." Forcadell's lawyer stresses: "This case is not about proving that specific acts constitute an offence. It is about deactivation of an independence movement and of its leadership." 

Trial to mark a before and after for civil rights 

Amnesty International Spain calls the trial into question and has announced that it wishes to sit in on it as an observer. A few weeks ago the Spanish legal system suffered another blow when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the Basque separatist Arnaldo Otegi had not been given a fair trial in Spain. Forcadell and her defence place great hopes in the European courts. Forcadell is convinced that the Spanish judges will find her guilty. "Whether three years or seventeen, I will be given a prison sentence." 

However, many Catalans feel that European politicians have left them in the lurch, Forcadell says. Between the referendum on 1 October 2017 and the symbolic declaration of independence on 27 October, they were hoping for support from Brussels, which never materialized. "Our movement has always been pro-European and we believe that self- determination is our right. The EU should support us, not for independence but for exercising our rights", explained the former Speaker. 

This is another reason why Forcadell believes that the impending trial against the leaders of the independence movement will point the way: "It will be about our freedom of opinion and our ideological freedom. For the first time since the transition to democracy in Spain, these rights will be brought before a Court. That is what people should be afraid of." As for the causa – independence – Forcadell says: "For some time this has no longer been about independence, it is a question of our freedoms and rights. Laws may change, but our rights are untouchable. Otherwise, we, as a society, will be moving backwards. I refuse to accept that." 

However, the political situation in Catalonia remains overshadowed by the lack of a common strategy on the part of the independence parties against the Spanish State. Nevertheless, Carme Forcadell does not feel left on her own in her cell: "We are all human beings. The repression weighs heavily. I do not condemn anybody for what they have or have not done in response to this repression", she says. Now people know what the price would be. 

"Being in prison means you cannot be close to the people you love." Clearly, she believes that her situation and that of her fellow activists in prison can unite more people, not only in Catalonia but also in the rest of Spain: "Many people are against repression, even opponents of independence. And eighty per cent still want to exercise their right to self-determination. I believe it is never too late for dialogue." Naturally, she has no desire to become a martyr. "I want to regain my freedom and be back with my family" she answers pragmatically. 

A saxophone in front of the prison 

The common people support their Carme. For months, Oscar Cid has been playing his saxophone in front of the prison gates at seven o'clock every evening. Carme cannot hear his music, but Oscar tells us emotionally how she received him in prison to thank him for his gesture. A dozen supporters of all ages from the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) join him. An older man sprays yellow vests with the Estelada, the Catalan independence flag. 

Also the exiled former President of the Catalan Government, Carles Puigdemont, is striking a combative stance. He has co-founded a Council for the Republic to promote the Catalan Republic from Belgium. He has used the media coverage in his home country to send a message to Madrid and his own ranks: "They cannot touch us any more. We are not afraid and we will act without any restriction of our freedom of opinion." His successor as President, Quim Torra, echoed Puigdemont's words: "We are prepared to do everything to secure our freedom." 

Meanwhile, Carme Forcadell in her Mas d’Enric prison cell is fighting for such mundane items as a hairdryer, which men's prisons do not provide. Or green paint to brighten up a wall with trees. She considers activities like these good for female inmates. "Even the prison world is dominated by men. Only if we stand strong together can we change things," she says determinedly. 

As visitors leave the building, an extract from the Spanish Constitution written on the wall is there to remind us how to justify confinement: “Punishments entailing imprisonment and security measures shall be aimed at rehabilitation and social reintegration." 

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