27th May 2024
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Amnesty bill registered in Spanish Congress – full details

The PSOE socialist party – led by acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and who is set to officially secure a new term in office after a vote this Thursday – filed its controversial amnesty bill in the Spanish Congress on Monday afternoon. ALSO READ: Feijóo vows to continue protests against amnesty ‘until there are new elections’.

The 23-page document, called Organic Amnesty Law for the Institutional, Political and Social Normalisation in Catalonia, was signed only by the PSOE party. Although the proposed bill is also backed by the left-wing alliance of Sumar, the Catalan pro-independence parties Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), as well as the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJPNV), the left-wing Basque party EH Bildu, and the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) – it was not signed by those groups.

Under the terms of the PSOE’s pact with the ERC and JxCat, the latter’s leader Carles Puigdemont — who is in self-imposed exile in Belgium following the failed independence bid of 2017 — will benefit from the amnesty, as well as many others who participated in the referendum that was deemed illegal by Madrid. In exchange, the 14 MPs of JxCat and ERC will vote in favour at Sánchez’s investiture debate on Thursday. ALSO READ: The PSOE and Junts sign a pact that will guarantee investiture of Pedro Sánchez.

Spanish Presidency Minister Félix Bolaños (main image) said after submitting the bill that it was a ‘giant step to normalise the political, institutional and social situation in Catalonia’.

‘We are convinced that the [amnesty] bill is fully constitutional and that it is a great law for our country and will be recognised as such. That is why we are submitting it,’ he said. 

The proposed future law involves cancelling the ‘criminal, administrative and accounting responsibility’ of all those who committed crimes in connection with the pro-independence process in Catalonia for a decade, ranging between 1 January 2012 and 13 November 2023. It does not include references to the investigation of supposed cases of lawfare (supposed judicial persecution for political reasons), a term that was included in the political agreement (which is not legally binding) between the PSOE and JxCat signed last week. 

The draft law agreed entails amnesty for the crimes and for the administrative and accounting responsibilities tied to the independence referendums held in Catalonia on 9 November 2014 (which was a non-binding ‘consultation’ vote under then-Catalan president Artur Mas) and on 1 October 2017 (deemed illegal by Madrid).

The bill also covers any actions committed between 2012 and the present that aimed to ‘claim, promote or seek the secession or independence of Catalonia’.

If and when the bill becomes a law, the courts would have two months to apply the amnesty, although it will be possible to raise questions of unconstitutionality that could delay the effects of the measure. If the law comes fully into force, Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after leading the referendum in 2017, would be able to return to Spain without fear of being arrested. However, it could still take time for the on-going case against him in the Supreme Court is dropped.

The law could benefit nearly 400 people, including politicians and public officials, citizens who were prosecuted for the riots after the 2019 conviction of the Catalan leaders, as well as police officers.

The law will strike down a ban on holding public office that was handed down to Oriol Junqueras, head of the ERC and Puigdemont’s deputy at the time of the 2017 referendum. It will also wipe away the case opened against Puigdemont and the aides who fled with him to Brussels to avoid prosecution. Former senior officials of the Catalan government who were accused of helping prepare the unlawful vote and promote it internationally will remain untried. Likewise, the police and Guardia Civil officers who were charged with injuring people during the crackdown on 1 October 2017 will also see those charges dropped. Negotiators have estimated that around 73 officers will benefit.

The bill does not cover acts against people resulting in death, abortion or injury to the fetus, the loss or permanent damage to an organ or limb, impotence, sterility or serious deformity. The crimes of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment are also excluded ‘provided they exceed a minimum threshold of seriousness’.

Acts classified as terrorist crimes are not included in the amnesty bill either, but only when a final sentence has been handed down. This means that even though Puigdemont is being investigated by a Spanish court on suspicion of terrorism over a case known as Democratic Tsunami, he would still benefit from the amnesty. ALSO READ: Spanish judge now wants to question Puigdemont as part of terrorism investigation.

What happens next

Although the amnesty bill has been registered in parliament, it could still face political and legal obstacles before it becomes law. 

It will first go through through the standard parliamentary procedure, expected to last for up to a month. 

It will then go through the Senate, where the right-wing People’s Party (PP) holds a majority. They are likely to delay the bill before passing it to Congress again, where it could finally be approved and come into force.  

The amnesty law could be appealed before the Constitutional Court by members of the Congress, by senators or by regional governments, but the bill establishes that the amnesty will be applied within two months regardless and will not be placed on hold while these legal challenges get resolved.

However, the courts that are forced to apply the amnesty may also raise questions of unconstitutionality before the Constitutional Court, and according to existing legislation on the matter, this ‘will give rise to the provisional suspension of the proceedings in the judicial process’ until the Constitutional Court issues a ruling. This implies, according to legal sources, that the judges who open up this avenue will not apply the amnesty until the Constitutional Court issues a decision.

Background to Catalan political conflict

Nine Catalan politicians and activists were jailed for between 9-13 years by the Spanish Supreme Court in October 2019, convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds for their role in the 2017 illegal referendum, with the verdicts causing widespread protests across Catalonia. In June 2021, the nine walked free from prison, following pardons granted by the government led by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, but they remained banned from holding public office.

Late last year, Spain passed a controversial criminal code reform that downgraded the two charges used against them, abolishing sedition and replacing it with that of aggravated public disorder, and also reducing the penalty for misuse of public funds.

Misuse of public funds can carry prison time of between six months and up to five years if convicted, but disobedience only carries a disqualification from public office.

Carles Puigdemont led the government of Catalonia when it staged the referendum banned by Madrid and the courts, which was followed by a short-lived declaration of independence.

ALSO READ: Pedro Sánchez faces backlash and tough legislature ahead due to Catalan deal.

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