The decision, opposed by a slight majority of Spaniards as well as the country’s Supreme Court, will mark the biggest political shift from the central government toward Catalonia since the chaotic referendum on independence four years ago.
The move is aimed at defusing tensions in what has become Spain’s greatest political crisis since the transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. For some Catalans, the nine jailed leaders have become an emotional symbol for what they say is a right denied by Madrid to choose their region’s destiny.
But it is unclear how dramatically the pardons will change the dynamic. Some pro-independence figures in Catalonia say the only proper peace offering is full amnesty — which would strike the crimes from the record, something that the pardons will not do.
Meanwhile, Sánchez, a Socialist with a minority government, is also facing intense opposition from Spain’s political right. Figures in those parties say he is making a political calculation to curry favor with Catalan nationalists whose support he needs to pass legislation.
Opposition parties on the right have pledged to challenge any pardons for the Catalan leaders in the courts.
Earlier this month, in anticipation of the pardons, thousands of people protested in Madrid. The Supreme Court last month advised against the pardons, saying there has not been the “slightest proof or faintest hint” of contrition or regret from the jailed leaders.
In Catalonia, banners proclaim the nine sentenced leaders as political prisoners. They have been in jail for more than three years, counting pretrial detention, and in 2019, the Supreme Court convicted them of sedition — a decision that briefly stoked new street protests in Barcelona. At the time, Sánchez said he would “guarantee the complete fulfillment of the sentences.”
Madrid deemed the 2017 referendum unilateral and illegal, and the central government pushed back heavily against the vote, dispatching riot police to smash into voting centers. The referendum, orchestrated foremost by then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, showed lopsided support for secession. But the vote was not reflective of narrowly divided Catalan sentiment on the issue: Most of the Catalan voters who favored keeping Catalonia part of Spain had stayed home.
Puigdemont fled to escape charges of rebellion and decamped to Belgium, where he remains, but other leaders stayed in Catalonia, including Puigdemont’s then-deputy, Oriol Junqueras, who received the stiffest sentence, 13 years.
Junqueras, the leader of the Republican Left of Catalonia party, had long focused on amnesty as the only acceptable outcome. But he recently seemed to soften that stance, saying in an op-ed that pardons “can alleviate the conflict.”
Puigdemont has maintained a harder line. He wrote recently on Twitter that the Spanish state’s move was coming too late.
“Let no one try to say that with pardons the political problem is solved,” he said.