Jailed lawmakers from Catalonia suspended from Spanish government
The lower chamber of Spain's parliament on Friday suspended Oriol Junqueras and three colleagues from their recently gained seats as national lawmakers because they are currently in jail during an ongoing trial in Spain's Supreme Court.
They face up to 25 years in prison for rebellion charges that stem from a banned referendum and an independence declaration made by the separatist-controlled Catalan government in late 2017.
But Junqueras is also running for the European Parliament in elections that take place on Sunday, and polls say that he and his former boss, Carles Puigdemont, who unlike Junqueras fled the country to avoid arrest, have a chance of being elected.
Even so, the Catalan separatists face several legal hurdles to be sworn in as European lawmakers.
"The sole fact that a European lawmaker and a candidate to the presidency of the European Commission is a political prisoner of one of the European Union's member states is a very powerful message in favour of democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms not only in Catalonia but in all Europe," Junqueras told The Associated Press on Friday.
The Spanish government has repeatedly rejected the term "political prisoner" to refer to the prosecuted Catalan separatists, pointing out that they were jailed by independent courts according to legal provisions in the country.
The government also often reiterates that political parties openly advocating for secession are legal in the country, but the only way to achieve independence for a region like northeastern Catalonia is by reforming the country's 1978 constitution, which currently prohibits the secession of a region unless all Spaniards vote on it.
Junqueras spoke via video conference from a jail on the outskirts of Madrid shortly before the widely expected announcement that he would be suspended as a Spanish lawmaker.
Speaker Meritxell Batet announced that the governing body of the Congress of Deputies had ruled for the suspension in line with the country's criminal code, which bans those indicted for rebellion or terrorism-related charges and in preventive custody from holding public office.
The ruling also applies to Josep Rull, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Turull, with the four belonging to Puigdemont's conservative JxCat party. Spain's Supreme Court granted them permission earlier this week to attend — escorted by police — the opening parliamentary sessions of the new legislative term.
The four politicians as well as Raul Romeva — who won a seat in the Senate — were elected last month in the vote that saw caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist party win the most seats but fall well short of a majority.
Junqueras, the 50-year-old former vice-president of the Catalan regional government, who was previously a European lawmaker between 2009 and 2012, told AP that Friday's suspension in Spain doesn't affect him because he was planning to give up his seat anyway: members of the European Parliament can't hold certain public offices in their home countries.
European participation also in doubt
Junqueras is the lead candidate in the European elections of Ahora Republicans, a coalition of a Catalan and other small regionalist parties in Spain.
Junqueras said he hopes Spain's Supreme Court will allow him to travel to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, for the opening session in July.
"For me, it will be a pleasure to return to the European Parliament," he said, because that would allow him rejoin former colleagues in the bloc's assembly and "explain to them firsthand the deep injustice that innocent people are in prison."
While Junqueras said that if his attempt to become a European lawmaker is blocked he will appeal it in court, Puigdemont faces even greater potential challenges to join him in the continental legislature.
According to an internal report by the European Parliament's legal services that the AP has had access to, Puigdemont would have to return to Spain to be officially included in the list of its elected European lawmakers and thereby face arrest.
Despite the chaos caused by the Brexit referendum in the U.K., Junqueras is not wavering in his belief that the solution to the Catalan question is a regional vote on independence.
Election results and polls indicate that the 7.5 million residents of the Catalonia region are roughly split down the middle by the secession question.