20th July 2024
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Controversial Catalan amnesty law gets final approval in Spanish Congress

The Spanish Congress voted on Thursday to give final approval to a controversial amnesty law for dozens of Catalan pro-independence activists and politicians involved in the illegal and unsuccessful 2017 secession bid.

The legislation was backed by Spain’s coalition government of the PSOE socialists and left-wing Sumar group, two Catalan pro-independence parties, Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) and Esquerra Republicana (ERC), as well as the Basque parties EAJ-PNV and EH Bildu, and Galician BNG party. It passed by a vote of 177-172 in the lower house with the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and far-right Vox party opposing it.

Following a rowdy two-and-a-half hour debate during which the Speaker was forced to call order several times due to the insults traded on the floor, the bill passed. Shouts directed at Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of ‘traitor’ could be heard. Passing the amnesty was a key issue for Sánchez, as it was a demand made by the Catalan pro-independence parties in exchange for their parliamentary support to allow him to serve a new term. ALSO READ: The PSOE and Junts sign a pact that will guarantee investiture of Pedro Sánchez.

The new law – termed the ‘Organic Amnesty Law for the Institutional, Political and Social Normalisation in Catalonia’ – will benefit former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile in Belgium avoiding Spanish law, after fleeing Spain following the failed 1 October 2017 breakaway bid that he led. The new law could now pave the way for his return. ALSO READ: Puigdemont will still seek to become Catalan president, despite ‘pro-Spain win’.

The new law should also help out dozens if not hundreds more, including former government officials in Barcelona, ordinary citizens who participated in the independence attempt or protests, and some police officers involved in the crackdown on an illegal independence referendum held by Puigdemont’s government.

The passing of the amnesty law, however, does not immediately clear up the legal mess of the separatists.

The law is likely to face legal challenges and will be reviewed by higher courts. It also must be applied by courts on a case-by-case basis. There are experts who question its constitutionality since they say it would create inequality between Spanish citizens by favouring some over others.

Since taking power in 2018, Prime Minister Sánchez has focused on reducing tensions in Catalonia and he argues that the amnesty is key to culminating that process. The legislation seeks to draw a line under years of efforts to prosecute those involved in the botched 2017 Catalan independence bid that triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

But the amnesty was also a political necessity for Sánchez, who agreed to the act of pardon when he needed the support of the separatist MPs in Madrid to form a new national government back in November. It was initially approved by the Parliament’s lower house in March. The Senate, where right-wing parties hold a majority, vetoed it earlier this month, but the lower house pushed it through regardless. ALSO READ: Catalan amnesty bill back to Spanish Congress after ‘symbolic’ veto in Senate.

While the amnesty is popular in Catalonia, even among many unionists, the PP and Vox have led protests against it in Madrid and other cities across the country. There have also been critics of the amnesty within Sánchez’s PSOE party. ALSO READ: Thousands protest in central Madrid over government’s Catalan amnesty bill.

It comes during the run-up to European Parliament elections on 6-9 June when the socialists are trying to form a government in Catalonia after beating the pro-independence parties in regional elections earlier this month. ALSO READ: Catalan pro-independence parties lose majority, as PSC socialists win elections.

Click here for all our reports related to Catalan independence.

ALSO READ: Pedro Sánchez: socialist win in Catalonia ‘ends decade of division and resentment’.

ALSO READ: Amnesty bill registered in Spanish Congress – full details.

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 Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, but they remained banned from holding public office.

In late 2022, 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.

Carles Puigdemont had 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. He then fled to Brussels to avoid prosecution in Spain, and became an MEP. 

The ‘Organic Amnesty Law for the Institutional, Political and Social Normalisation in Catalonia’ will grant an amnesty to Catalan pro-independence politicians and activists facing legal action over their role in the October 2017 illegal referendum in Catalonia. It was pledged by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in order to secure the support of Catalan parties and remain in power. He has argued that the law is necessary to reduce tensions in Catalonia. His Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) won the election held in Catalonia on 12 May 2024, with the pro-independence parties losing their majority for the first time in a decade.


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