Over a Million Protesters March in Barcelona to Call for the Release of Catalan Political Prisoners

On Saturday, over a million Catalans marched in Barcelona to call for the release of the Catalan political prisoners recently imprisoned by Spain. The demonstration was given the name of “National Day for Liberty,” aiming for the same level of attendance and international impact as the yearly celebrations for Catalonia’s September 11th National Day. The demonstration filled more than three kilometers (almost 2 miles) of one of the Catalan capital’s main thoroughfares. Almost a thousand buses loaded with independentists from across the country headed to the protest in Barcelona.

At the front of the demonstration, a banner held by family members of the Catalan political prisoners and the organizers read, “Freedom for political prisoners, we are the Republic.” Attendance exceeded the expectations of the organizers, which delayed the beginning of the protest by an hour. The march lasted for 3 hours before arriving at the intersection with Avenida Icària, where a stage had been set up for speeches. That was where members of the families of the Catalan political prisoners climbed onto the stage and, one by one, read aloud letters written by the Catalan leaders in prison. The letters read:

Minister Joaquim Forn said, “Now it isn’t the time for differences,” but the moment for unity. Peace, democracy, and freedom are the values which give strength to the people of Catalonia,” he added. Ministers Meritxell Borràs and Dolors Bassa, in a joint letter, gave their thanks for the “hundreds” of letters received daily at their prison, Alcalá-Meco: “our physical distance doesn’t prevent us from feeling you near.” Minister Josep Rull said, “They’re wrong if they believe that they can imprison the will of the people”. He argued that “we’re the legitimate government because the Catalans decided so through a powerful tool: the ballot box”.

For his part, Minister Carles Mundó said, “People can be imprisoned, but nobody can imprison ideas.” “Political problems can never be solved in the court of the justice system,” he added. The Foreign Minister, Raül Romeva addressed the people, asking them “to keep their hand outstretched and the will to dialogue, without falling to provocations.” Government spokesperson Jordi Turull said, “Our bodies are in prison, but our hearts and our commitment are with you” He also called for unity: “It’s with unity that we’ve made great strides”.

Vice-president Oriol Junqueras denounced the “complicity of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) with the Spanish government in the imprisonments of democratically elected leaders like himself and their explicit support for Spain’s intervention in Catalonia’s government, which has removed any type of self-rule in Catalonia and has also installed the Spanish vice-president Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría as the Catalan president until the next elections are held.” He said that he and the other imprisoned ministers are the “scapegoats” of the Spanish state to frighten the independence movement.

The leaders of the two major Catalan grassroots organizations, Jordi Cuixart (ANC) and Jordi Sànchez (Òmnium), who were also imprisoned, sent messages to be read out by their family members to the million plus protesters gathered at Saturday’s demonstration.

Jordi Cuixart said, “great obstacles are for great spirits,” whilst Jordi Sànchez called on the Catalans to vote on the December 21st Catalan general elections. “Our strength is our unity, let nobody doubt that we will win.” The rally ended with messages sent by President Puigdemont and the members of his cabinet from Brussels.

 

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Spain Jails 8 Democratically Elected Members of Catalonia’s Government for Peacefully Defending their Ideas

On Thursday, a judge from Spain’s National Court, Carmen Lamela, sent 8 members of the Catalan government to jail for rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds without any evidence. As expected, the attorney general had requested their immediate imprisonment without bail and the judge approved.

Carmen Lamela is the same judge who had already sent to prison the civil rights leaders, Cuixart and Sànchez, two weeks ago, for sedition.

In her order, Judge Lamela said that the imprisonment, pending trial of the 8 Catalan leaders was “appropriate, reasonable and proportional.” She based her decision on their flight risk, taking into account the “spending power of the accused which would allow them to abandon the territory”. She also mentioned that other ministers and Catalonia’s President Puigdemont had already abandoned the country to prevent a trial in Spain.

In fact, she describes the government of Catalonia as “an organized group of people, with the support of sovereigntist associations with the power and the ability to help them in their possible flight from justice”. Lamela also alleges there is a “high risk of reoffending and a high probability that the accused might alter or destroy evidence.”

In the meantime, Catalan President Puigdemont and four members of his government remain in Belgium. They say that they do not want to escape Spanish justice, but they repudiate that they would have a fair trial if they were to return to Spain. For that reason, their intention is to stay in Brussels until there are at minimum guarantees of a fair-trial or until Belgium extradites them.

Numerous lawyers and experts, including those who wrote the crimes of rebellion and sedition, said that none of the government officials could be accused of such crimes because there has not been any violence. Sedition and rebellion charges imply an insurrection that involves taking up arms in order to take control of a territory. The Catalan government has always called on the people to hold peaceful demonstrations. In seven years of mass protests, not a single incident has ever been registered.

Thousands of intellectuals from across the world have denounced the extreme politicization of the Spanish judicial system in which many judges are directly appointed by the political forces that win the elections, making it impossible to guarantee either neutrality or fair trials.

Catalonia’s Decisive Week for Independence

On Tuesday, Catalan President Puigdemont “declared Catalonia’s independence,” but soon after suspended its effects in favor of dialogue with Spanish authorities. His decision came after numerous international actors suggested that mediation would only be possible if he halted independence as a sign of good faith.

Nevertheless, numerous members of parliament, who were informed about Puigdemont’s decision only 45 minutes before his intervention, expressed their disagreement and threatened to boycott his speech, as well as threatening to break the pro-independence absolute majority in Parliament. They stressed that they had agreed on a different declaration earlier in the day.

To address this alarming situation, President of Parliament Forcadell decided to suspend the plenary for 1 hour. While the disagreements remained, everyone present in the meeting finally accepted Puigdemont’s changes to the speech in order to maintain unity. Additionally, they agreed to hold a ceremony to sign an unofficial declaration of independence in another building after the plenary in order to give more solemnity to the day.

Tens of thousands of people who gathered around the parliament to celebrate the proclamation of the new Catalonian Republic ended up with mixed feelings. At first, when Puigdemont declared independence, they felt very excited, but this turned to disappointment when he suspended its legal effects without setting a deadline a few seconds later.

Most experts saw Puigdemont’s move as a wise one because it served to show the international community that Catalonia is seeking dialogue until the very end, which favours future international recognition of Catalonia as an independent country.

On Wednesday, Spanish PM Rajoy refused Puigdemont’s latest offer of dialogue and activated Article 155, which can be fully implemented a few days after Puigdemont responds to a mandatory request for information as to whether he has declared independence. He was given until Monday to respond; if it is in the affirmative, this period is extended until Thursday, with the option of altering the decision.

With Article 155, Rajoy can suspend Catalonia’s government, intervene in the education system and the police, and even call for an early election while installing technocrats from the central government to rule Catalonia for at least 3 months. In parallel, pro-independence parties and organizations may also be barred from participating in any eventual general election for at least 4 years.

Major pro-independence organizations are preparing a proportionate response to the implementation of the Article 155 and the possible arrest of Catalonia’s President and vice-president, which includes mass protests, and an indefinite general strike. The main idea would be to collapse the Spanish and European economies and eventually force an international intervention/mediation in Catalonia.

The response may be precipitated by Spain this Monday, because the leaders of the two major pro-independence organizations, Cuixart and Sanchez, have been summoned by the Spanish National Court to testify about “sedition charges” (punishable by up to 15 years in prison + a fine). According to some journalists with contacts in the Spanish government, the judges who are hearing these two cases have already made the decision to jail them in order to smash their respective organizations and thus spread fear across Catalonian society.

Against this possible outcome, Cuixart and Sanchez named their replacements on Saturday. In the meantime, pro-independence organizations and parties such as the ANC, Omnium, ERC, CUP, Democrates and several MP’s from the PDECAT have called on Puigdemont to lift the suspension of Catalonia’s declaration of independence and implement its legal effects as soon as next week. If possible before the Spanish implementation of Article 155.They believe there are no longer grounds for mediation or negotiations as equals with Spain, and that the only way to bring about international mediation/negotiations is by formally declaring independence first.

With this in mind, Puigdemont will have to make the most important decision of his life tomorrow morning. He must decide whether to go all-out to respect the will of the Catalonian people and face a prison sentence of up to 15 years or to surrender, refuse to declare independence, and thus comply with the Spanish government’s will.

Whatever Puigdemont’s decision may be in the coming hours, the worsening of the conflict between Catalonia and Spain appears to be inevitable, given that if he surrenders the independence process, millions of Catalans will then feel betrayed, resulting in the radicalization of many who would rise up against the Spanish government in order to defend the newly promised Catalonian Republic.

Perhaps the only thing that can stop this upcoming clash would be Spain’s acceptance of international mediation. Although, I must admit that I do not have much hope of that happening.

 

The Week that Spain Lost Catalonia

The detention of 15 high-ranking officials and the suspension of the Catalan government, last week by the Spanish government, in order to halt the referendum on independence set for tomorrow appears to have united separatists, federalists, and a significant number of unionists in defense of the vote.

“I have always been opposed to this referendum, because I am a federalist. However, the latest Spanish aggressions against Catalonia in order to humiliate our people is intolerable. That’s the main reason why I have decided to vote, and I will vote “YES” because I do not want to belong to a dictatorship like Turkey any longer. I think that the creation of a new state would give us the chance to build a more fair country and society” said David, a Barcelona citizen.

My family and I have always voted for unionist parties. We like Spain and most of our friends are from Madrid. Nevertheless, the Spanish repression of the Catalans this week is unacceptable. The government has violated the international law and has restricted the freedom of expression in Catalonia. They have raided printing shops, newspapers offices, and forbidden Catalan editors from advertising the referendum. Last week, they suspended our government and detained a number of our democratically elected representatives. Until this week, I was not going to vote in the referendum because I have always been a unionist, but Spain does not give me any other option. I will go to vote “YES” because this is no longer a referendum on independence, it is all about “Democracy” VS “Dictatorship,” said Marta, a Barcelona businesswoman.

The Catalan government has had serious problems in mobilizing the “unionists” for this referendum until the past week. Most of them thought that they could defeat the Catalan President by promoting a boycott of the vote. However, the latest Spanish aggressions against Catalan institutions have changed the situation, and it appears now that the vast majority of unionists are willing to support the referendum, in order to preserve democracy. This could result in a historic turnout that cannot be ignored by the international community.

The constant attacks against Catalonia by the Spanish government have also united separatists, federalists, and several unionist political parties, which are now calling on the people for mass participation in the referendum. Additionally, they are planning a social/labor indefinite general strike starting on October 3rd, in order to collapse the Spanish economy, if Spain does not recognize the results of the vote.

Although the Catalan government has always been committed to carrying out the referendum, there has always been serious doubts about the validation of the results. However, it seems that the latest anti-democratic actions against Catalonia by Spain have already guaranteed the international recognition of the results, whatever they may be.

Spain Assaults the Catalan Government

Spanish militarized police assaulted Catalan government offices and arrested 15 officials on Wednesday in order to stop the October 1st banned referendum. The Catalan president said that this action meant the suspension of Catalonia’s government and the implementation of a state of emergency across the country.

Tens of thousands of protesters crowded outside the Catalan government offices in downtown Barcelona’s tourist district, waving Catalan flags and chanting “Occupying forces out” and “Where is Europe?”.

The Spanish state has by all rights intervened in Catalonia’s government and has established emergency rule,” said President Carles Puigdemont. “We condemn and reject the anti-democratic and totalitarian actions of the Spanish state,” he said, calling on the Catalans to vote in the referendum to preserve democracy.

Spanish militarized police detained Catalonia’s junior economy minister Josep Maria Jove and 14 high-ranking local officials. The raid targeted numerous regional government departments.

Police confirmed that they were carrying out raids to dismantle the organization of the October 1st referendum.

Despite Spanish police provocations to cause riots, mass protests across Catalonia remained peaceful. Protesters bore banners reading “Democracy” and “Vote to be free”.

The FC Barcelona soccer club said in a statement: “FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defense of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights.”

Police efforts to stop the referendum have intensified in recent days as the Catalan government reaffirms its commitment to hold the referendum by any means. A few days ago, President Puigdemont said that he and his administration members were willing to go to prison if necessary. He added that he is not afraid of defending people’s rights.

Over the last few weeks, the Spanish police have raided printer’s shops, newspaper offices private post-delivery companies looking for the necessary material to hold the referendum, instruction manuals for manning voting stations and ballot boxes.

 

1 Million People Attend a Pro-Independence Rally in Barcelona

On Monday, one million pro-independence supporters gathered in Barcelona for the National Day of Catalonia, three weeks before the key independence referendum on October 1st.

The city’s streets were flooded with hundreds of thousands of people several hours before the rally organized by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural was set to begin. According to the organizers, up to 2000 buses from cities all over Catalonia made the journey to the capital.

The rally began at 5.14 PM with one minute’s silence held in remembrance of the victims of the Barcelona and Cambrils terror attacks. Spirits were high as the atmosphere changed from one of anticipation to eager excitement and optimism with hopes for a positive result in the coming referendum.

Four banners with messages of peace, independence and liberty were passed along by the protesters in a show of unity.

Voting has never been a crime,” President of Òmnium Cultural, Jordi Cuixart, addressed the crowd of thousands. “In spite of their fears and threats, we have our own laws based on international legislation. The Spanish courts no longer defend the collective interests of the Catalan people… They want to silence democracy.”

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and representative of the Tunisian Human Rights League Ahmed Galai was also present. A key supporter of Catalan independence, he inspired crowds with his speech stating that “referendum is democracy.” After key speeches made by organizers and pro-independence politicians, crowds began to disperse at around 7 pm.

This year, the annual pro-independence rally was more crucial than ever, since it came in the context of an all-out confrontation between the Spanish and Catalan governments. A few days before the rally was held, the international community said that a low turnout would weaken the legitimacy of the Catalan government‘s disobedience of the Spanish government and Supreme Court in holding the independence referendum set for October 1st.

Nevertheless, the spectacular turn out of 1 million people demanding that the Catalan government hold the referendum, no matter what, appears to have given the necessary legitimacy to the Catalan President to disobey the politicized Spanish Supreme Court and the Spanish government.

After Monday’s mass rally, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said this morning during an interview that he and his government will not accept a hypothetical suspension of their mandate by the Spanish Supreme Court. He added that from now on, he will only follow the Catalan legislation which stipulates that he can only be suspended by the Catalonian people. He also stressed that not only is holding a referendum on independence not illegal, but a right spelled out in the two 1966 UN Conventions on Human Rights which the Spanish Constitution recognizes as the supreme law of the land.

Last week, Catalonia’s parliament passed two crucial laws: the law of the referendum, which allows the government to hold the unilateral independence referendum in October, and the law of “transitorietat” that will only be applied if most Catalans vote in favor of the independence in the referendum. This law would serve as a new constitution until the new one is written, approved, and voted via referendum by the Catalonian people.

It is expected that the tension between the Spanish and Catalan governments will grow to limits never before seen in democracy during the days prior to the referendum. The Spanish government will try to prevent the referendum from happening by all means, but, if it is held in the end, the most important indicators for the international community to validate the results will be the turnout, the opinion of the international observers, and the transparency of the process.

62 Human Rights Organizations Urge the UN to Investigate Saudi Arabia’s Abuses in Yemen

Last week, 62 human rights organizations from around the world called on the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Saudi Arabia’s abuses in Yemen.

“The victims of abuses in Yemen cannot afford to wait longer for credible investigations into ongoing grave violations and abuses to be undertaken”, the letter said. “We, therefore, call on the Human Rights Council to establish, during its 36th session, an independent international inquiry to investigate alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen. The inquiry should be given the mandate to establish the facts and circumstances and to collect and preserve evidence of, and clarify responsibility for, alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law, with a view to ending impunity and providing accountability.”

The call on the UN to investigate Saudi Arabia’s abuses comes weeks before the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterrez, has to make the decision whether or not to add the Saudi Kingdom to the UN’s Child Rights Blacklist. Last year, Ban Ki-moon removed Saudi Arabia from the aforementioned UN blacklist at the last minute, after Saudi Arabia threatened him with halting its communications and de-funding the UN.

Save the Children has been running a campaign demanding the UN stand up to the autocratic Middle East regime and shame it for its alleged war crimes in Yemen.

“Last week we handed in a petition to the secretary-generals office with 37,000 signatures … he needs to make a strong decision. He needs to make sure that the Saudi led coalition are listed,” Mr Kaye explained.

“He should do what Ban Ki-moon failed to do last year”.

Since March 2015, at least 10,000 civilians, including children, have been killed in Yemen, though the U.N. Human Rights Office believes that the overall number is much higher. During this time, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out indiscriminate air-strikes against civilians in cities such as the capital Sana’a, Hajjah, Hodeidah and Sa’da governorates, killing and injuring thousands of civilians. The coalition has unlawfully attacked homes, markets, funerals, hospitals, schools, and mosques.

“None of the forces in Yemen’s conflict seem to fear being held to account for violating the laws of war,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UN members need to press the parties to end the slaughter and the suffering of civilians.”

Human Rights Watch has documented 58 unlawful Saudi-led coalition air strikes, some may amount to war crimes. The coalition has also used internationally banned cluster munitions. Neither the US nor the UK has suspended arms sales to the Saudi Kingdom despite evidence of their usage to commit war crimes.

Numerous Human right organizations working in Yemen have regularly accused Saudi Arabia of blocking critical relief aid from reaching civilians, including children, deepening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. The coalition has also imposed a permanent air and naval blockade across the country, limiting the importation of food, drinking water, and medicines, contributing to the near collapse of its health system.

Around 15 million Yemenis do not have access to drinking water and basic healthcare. The country also remains on the brink of famine, with some 385,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF. It said the cholera epidemic has been declining since June by one-third because of help from “unsung local heroes” although 550,000 suspected diarrhea and cholera and more than 2,000 associated deaths recorded since April, UNICEF said.

“What was a steady drumbeat of support for an international inquiry into Yemen abuses has become a crescendo,” John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, said in a release. “Human Rights Council member countries should live up to their own mandate, heed these calls, and put in place a body to begin chipping away at the impunity that has been a central facet of Yemen’s war.”

Ahead of the increasing pressure of human rights organizations and the public opinion to add Saudi Arabia to UN’s blacklist and investigate its abuses in Yemen, Riyad is stressing that the Kingdom has helped the Yemeni people by providing basic aid valued in more than $8 billion.

Over the next few weeks, all doubts over the UN’s credibility will be removed. It will have to decide whether it is a biased partisan organization or a neutral one which is efficient in solving conflicts. Carrying out an independent investigation into Saudi Arabia’s possible war crimes in Yemen would demonstrate that the UN is still sometimes a useful organization capable of holding war criminals accountable. Lastly, adding Saudi Arabia to the aforementioned blacklist would only be a small emotional victory but none the less important due to the fact that the UN cannot allow itself to give way to the Saudi’s constant blackmail against the organization.