BARCELONA, Spain – On the green boulevard in Barcelona sits the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, an organization known in Spain for both its literary awards and its dreams of an independent republic in Catalonia.
But its president, Jordi Quixart, is nowhere to be seen: He has lived in a prison cell for the past three and a half years.
For Spanish authorities, Mr Quixart is a dangerous criminal convicted of rioting at a time when he and other separatist leaders were trying to create a breakaway state in northeastern Catalonia. Yet for his supporters and in the eyes of many foreign countries, he is a political prisoner sitting in the heart of Europe.
It has been more than three years since the Catalan independence movement nearly tore Spain apart, and politicians in Madrid seemingly won. Separation plans are largely dead. The sound of knocking pots, which was a continuation of the movement, is rarely heard at night in Barcelona.
But Spanish leaders absorbed in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic still have a political problem. For many, Mr Cuixart and eight other men imprisoned for riots are now martyrs who, according to human rights groups, have been detained for nothing more than voting and influencing their political views.
For the Spanish government – and for Europe as a whole – they have also become a diplomatic headache, raising accusations of hypocrisy against a region known for demanding greater democratic freedoms around the world.
Russia has quoted Catalan prisoners this year to deflect calls from Europe for the release of Alexei A. Navalny, Russia’s opposition leader. The United States lists the prisoners in its human rights report for Spain and calls their prison a form of political intimidation.
Even MEPs from the European Union, of which Spain is a member, have lifted their plight. When the bloc discussed making Hungary and Poland accountable for the rule of law in the EU, some MEPs noted a double standard: Spain, they say, holds political prisoners.
The prisons stem from a long-running conflict, still unresolved, over identity, language and who has the right to rule in Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people on the border with France.
In 2017, Catalonia was thrown into chaos when its leaders tried to hold a regional referendum on independence in defiance of Spanish courts. The national government in Madrid sent riot squads to seize ballot boxes and even beat some voters.
The separatists claimed victory, despite the fact that more than half of the voters did not vote and polls showed that Catalonia was divided into independence.
Challengingly, the parliament in Catalonia continued and declared independence, however – only to suspend its own declaration before it was dissolved by the Spanish government. By this time, Mr Cuixart had already been arrested and other separatist leaders had fled to Belgium.
In 2019, the courts sentenced Mr Cuixart and eight others to between nine and 13 years in prison after sentencing them to riot.
“He is in prison only to exercise his right to express himself,” Esteban Beltran, who heads Amnesty International’s Spanish office, told Mr Cuixart.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said the case brought painful memories to the country of other independence movements, including the killings of the ETA terrorist group, which has been fighting for independence for the northern Basque region for decades.
“They are not political prisoners. “These are politicians who have broken the law,” Ms. Gonzalez Laya said in an interview.
“The question is, do you have the ability to express a different opinion in Spain? Answer: Yes. Do you have the right to unilaterally decide that you are breaking up the country? No, she added.
But David Bondia, a professor of international law in Barcelona, said the Spanish government was considering a major overhaul that would weaken its theft laws, something he sees as an acknowledgment that there was a mistake in separatist leaders’ prison.
Mr Cuixart’s case was even more problematic from a legal point of view. He was the leader of a cultural group, but the trial against his theft was conducted under a legal framework reserved for politicians, Mr Bondia said, raising issues related to the due process.
For Carles Puigdemon, the former president of Catalonia who is leading the pressure for a referendum, the situation is reminiscent of the days of Franco’s dictatorship, when political opponents lived in fear of persecution.
“It hit us hard and took us to the past,” he said.
Mr Puigdemont, who is also wanted on charges of theft, fled Spain in 2017 to Belgium, where he serves in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was lifted in March, allowing him to be extradited.
Franco’s shadow played a role in the early days of Omnium, the cultural organization that Mr Cuixart will continue to lead.
It was founded in 1961 by a group of businessmen to promote the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish government was banning its public use. Shortly afterwards, the Francoists closed the Omnium and the group went underground.
When Mr Cuixart grew up on the outskirts of Barcelona in the 1980s, Franco died and many remnants of his regime were long since swept away. But Mr Cuixart still saw an intolerance of his culture.
He had the name of Mr. Cuixart, for example. His first name, Jordi, was the Catalan name of the patron saint of the region, St. George the Dragon Slayer. But in official documents, Mr Quixart is registered under the Spanish name Jorge, a common practice in the country that prohibits the registration of Catalan names.
“They saw the difference as a threat,” he said.
Mr. Cuixart was engrossed in the world of Catalan letters by his uncle, who owned a bookstore that was soon known for its literary salons full of poets and political figures. The atmosphere was a ‘creative hurricane’, Mr Cuixart said it would inspire him for decades.
As a young man, Mr. Cuixart immersed himself in the business world, first working in factories in Barcelona and then saving to open his own. After his profile as an entrepreneur began to grow, he joined Omnium in 1996.
From its secret days, the group has become a key force in Catalan culture. He revived the Night of St. Lucia, banned by the Franco Literary Festival after dark in Barcelona, and presented the St. Jordi Prize for best novel written in Catalan.
Omnium also evoked the nationalist feelings that Mr Cuixart had as a teenager.
“Being Catalan was more than language and bloodline,” he said. “It was a decision to live here and be here. That made you Catalan. “
In 2010, Spanish courts issued a charter giving broad powers of self-government four years after it was approved by voters and the regional parliament. The move sparked widespread anger, and separatist flags became common in the countryside.
Parliament is soon debating a move to declare an independent state, long considered a radical dream.
Mr Cuixart, who became president of Omnium until 2015, was sometimes at odds that his group had also joined the propaganda for independence – after all, it is a cultural organization, not a political one. But in the end, he said, not joining would be on the wrong side of the story.
The decisive day came for Mr Quixart on 20 September 2017, when Spanish police, trying to stop the independence referendum, stormed the Catalan regional ministry building on suspicion that voting plans were being organized there. But a giant crowd surrounded the place.
Mr Cuixart and independence leader Jordi Sánchez tried to mediate between the protesters and the police. They paved the way for the officers to enter the building and declared anyone who thought of violence a “traitor.”
As the night progressed, Mr Cuixart said he feared violent clashes. In the recording, he is seen on top of a vehicle calling on the crowd to disperse. Despite the mockery of the protesters, most left, and Mr Kushart said he went to bed afterwards.
The vote took place against the backdrop of repression next month. But Mr Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there were no consequences after he avoided conscription as a young man. He thought he had nothing to fear this time.
But then came the charges: theft, one of the highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian accusations of protest activity surprised even legal experts, who said that theft laws, which cover crimes less serious than a total riot, are rarely used in a country.
“I needed to know what a riot was,” Mr. Quixart said.
Mr Quixart currently spends his days at Leledance Prison, a penitentiary built for about 1,000 prisoners and home to convicted drug addicts and murderers. He said he spent his afternoons meditating and writing letters.
Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who opposes Catalan independence, said he did not regret Mr Quixart’s situation, as the separatists had made it their own.
“I do not forgive them because they have shattered our society,” Mr Canyas said, adding that the pressure for independence still divided Spanish homes. “I have friends with whom I no longer talk about this.”
Mr Cuixart, for his part, said he did not ask for forgiveness. He would do it all over again, he said. Spain needed to change, he said, not him.
“At some point, Spain will have to think and ask, ‘What are they going to do with me?'” He said. “To liquidate me?” They can not.
Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed with reports from Madrid.