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Protests flare over Spain's pardon plan

by The Associated. Press | June 14, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. The banner reads in Spanish "You can't break Spain. Whoever does it, will pay for it.". (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

MADRID -- Thousands of people Sunday called for Spain's government to resign over its plan to issue pardons to a dozen separatist leaders who were convicted for their roles in a 2017 attempt to carve out an independent Catalan state, the boldest secession push in recent Spanish history.

The demonstration in Madrid was the largest to date against the left-wing coalition government led by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. It was organized by a civil society group in defense of Spain's unity and held at a central square that has become a symbol for far-right political rallies.

"Where have you seen, my friends, a government that rewards those who declare themselves enemies of its nation?" Rosa Diez, a former Socialist politician who heads the Union '78 platform, said at the event.

Leaders of the center to far-right opposition to Sanchez joined the protest at Colon Square, which boasts one of the nation's largest national flags.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5n4XLaxFUGY]

Sanchez hasn't signed any pardons yet for the political and civil society leaders who in October 2017 pushed ahead with a banned referendum on independence for the northeastern region of Catalonia and then declared independence based on its results. Opponents of Catalan independence boycotted the vote, which took place amid a violent police crackdown.

But the prime minister has defended the potential pardons as a way to bring Catalans and Spaniards closer together after the divisive prosecutions that put nine of the 12 Catalan leaders behind bars. Hundreds of civil servants and activists have also been prosecuted.

Spain's Supreme Court has opposed the pardons. In a recent nonbinding opinion, the court said the sentences for sedition and other crimes were appropriate, and that the convicted individuals had not shown "the slightest evidence or faintest hint of contrition."

Sanchez also faces criticism in his own Socialist camp, which sees the pardons as a risky political gamble. More than 60% of Spaniards oppose the pardons and 29.5% back them, according to a recent poll for El Mundo newspaper. Other surveys conducted in Catalonia show 60% to 70% support for the move.

In his most recent comments about the issue, Sanchez signaled a desire to address the concerns.

"I understand that there are citizens who are reluctant about the possibility of granting pardons to the Catalan prisoners," the prime minister said during a visit to Argentina this week.

"But I ask for your trust, because we have to make a bet for coexistence," he said. "Spanish society has to move from a bad past to a better future, and that also implies magnanimity."

Detractors accuse Sanchez of making concessions to the separatists in exchange for support from Catalan lawmakers in the national parliament and, ultimately, to remain in power. The votes of ERC, a left-wing pro-Catalan republican party that has recently become the dominant force in the prosperous region, could be key for passing a national budget next year and determining how Spain will spend a hefty pandemic recovery fund, among other issues.

"We are not going to permit Sanchez's attack on the judiciary, on the sovereignty, national unity and equality of the Spanish people, in exchange for a handful of votes," said Pablo Casado, the leader of the leading opposition party, the conservative Popular Party.

At Sunday's protest, a banner raised over a sea of yellow-and-red Spanish flags read, "They are not pardons, it's blackmail."

Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal, center, attends a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal, center, attends a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
A woman holds the Spanish flag during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
A woman holds the Spanish flag during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands gather during a protest against the Spanish government's plan to issue pardons to a dozen imprisoned Catalan separatist leaders, Madrid, Sunday, 13 June, 2021. The demonstration has been organized by a civil society group in defense of the nation's unity that chose to hold it at a central square that has become popular for far-right political rallies. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
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