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POLITICS

No regrets, says Catalan ex-minister on referendum anniversary

Five years after the failed secession push in Catalonia which landed him in jail, Oriol Junqueras remains convinced that defying Spain with a banned independence referendum was the right move.

Former deputy head of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras
Former deputy head of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras holds an interview with AFP at the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) separatist political party's headquarters in Barcelona on September 29, 2022. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

But the former deputy head of the region says the separatist camp needs to rally more support if its dream of an independent Catalan state is to one day become a reality.

“We did what we had to do,” the professor-turned-politician said during an interview with AFP when asked about the failed secession drive that came to a head in October 2017.

“I am deeply proud of all that we have done, of our commitment, of having been able to convene, organise and hold a referendum on self-determination,” the 53-year-old added.

Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the October 1, 2017 referendum organised by Catalonia’s separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.

Based on the results of this vote — which were never independently corroborated — the Catalan parliament declared independence on October 27.

Spanish authorities responded by sacking the Catalan government and pressed charges against the region’s leaders who either fled abroad or were jailed like Junqueras.

Declining support

Today the separatist movement is deeply divided over the path forward and Catalonia’s ruling pro-independence coalition is on the point of collapse.

While Junqueras’s ERC party favours dialogue with Madrid, its junior coalition partners, the JxC of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has taken a more confrontational approach.

Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself also remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.

In an October 2017 poll, support for independence in the wealthy northeastern region of Spain stood at 49 percent.

“What we must do today, is be democratically stronger” in the face of the “repressive” Spanish state, said Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence and father-of-two who also served as Catalonia’s economy minister.

The “main mistake” of the separatist camp in 2017 was that it did not “talk more with people, convince more people” to back the cause, he added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government last year pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were serving lengthy jail terms for their roles in the ill-fated independence bid.

Junqueras was in 2019 sentenced to 13 years behind bars, the longest term among the nine pardoned leaders. He spent over three years in prison before his pardon.

As Catalonia’s former vice president Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds after the unauthorised 2017 referendum which led to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

‘Made us stronger’

Puigdemont, who was the head of Catalonia’s government at the time of the referendum, evaded arrest by fleeing to Belgium after Catalonia’s short-lived declaration of independence.

“I was convinced that my obligation was to be as close as possible to my citizens, at the same time I understand perfectly that other people opted for exile,” Junqueras said.

“The fact that we have been in jail has only made us stronger in every way,” he added.

“It has also opened many doors in the international community that were more difficult to open previously, so in this sense the time in prison has also been a very profitable investment.”

He cited as an example an August finding from the UN’s Human Rights Committee which concluded Spain had violated the political rights of Catalan politicians including Junqueras.

The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from office before having been convicted.

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POLITICS

Gibraltar accuses Spain of ‘gross sovereignty breach’ over customs incident

Gibraltar on Friday accused Spain of a "gross violation of British sovereignty" after an incident on one of its beaches involving Spanish customs agents who were attacked by smugglers, during which shots were fired.

Gibraltar accuses Spain of 'gross sovereignty breach' over customs incident

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in a statement.

The incident happened early on Thursday when a small Spanish customs vessel lost power while pursuing suspected tobacco smugglers off Gibraltar, a source from Spain’s tax agency which is in charge of customs told AFP.

After choppy seas pushed their vessel to the shore, the two officers on board were surrounded by a group of people and pelted with rocks, some of them weighing over three kilos (6.5 pounds), the source added.

The officers fired “shots into the water to try to drive away” the people throwing rocks, a tax office source told AFP, speaking on condition he was not identified.

One customs officer suffered a broken nose, the other fractured bones in his face, he added.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show several shots being fired during the incident, although it was not clear who fired them.

‘Reckless and dangerous’

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law,” the Gibraltar government statement said.

It called the incident “reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area”.

The governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom consider that the events “will require careful consideration as to the nature and level of diplomatic response,” it added.

Gibraltar police and army officers used metal detectors on Friday to search for bullet casings on the beach, images broadcast on Gibraltar TV showed.

Picardo said Spanish law agencies know they can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but “it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

Spain’s foreign ministry “categorically rejected” the terms of the Gibraltar government statement as well as the “claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar” which it contained.

Spain’s Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said the customs agency would “investigate what happened and will demand the necessary explanations”.

Post-Brexit talks

The incident comes as Madrid and London are locked in talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union.

The European Commission and Spain sent Britain, in late 2022 a proposal that would keep freedom of movement along the border of the tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip.

About 15,000 people, the majority of them Spaniards, commute daily from Spain to jobs in Gibraltar, which has a population of about 34,000.

Gibraltar has long been a source of British-Spanish tensions. Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back, a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the
frontier.

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.

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