Jailed Catalan leader sees parliament mandate as win for ballot box

Daniel BOSQUE
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Catalonia's former vice-president and elected member of parliament Oriol Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence, could face 25 years in prison if convicted on rebellion and other charges

Catalonia's former vice-president and elected member of parliament Oriol Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence, could face 25 years in prison if convicted on rebellion and other charges (AFP Photo/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

Barcelona (AFP) - Former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras has been in jail for more than 18 months but on Tuesday he will be temporarily released, and sworn in as a Spanish lawmaker.

The head of Catalan separatist party ERC is one of five Catalan leaders on trial for their roles in an October 2017 Catalonian secession bid who were elected deputies in Spain's April 28 general election.

Four won seats in the lower house of parliament and one was elected to the Senate.

"They want to silence and marginalise us, and the ballot box has given our voice back. We defeated repression through the power of voting," Junqueras, 50, told AFP in a written interview from prison.

He is the main protagonist in the trial that opened in February at Spain's Supreme Court in Madrid of 12 Catalan leaders accused of rebellion and other charges in connection with a banned independence referendum held on October 1, 2017 that was followed by a short-lived declaration of independence.

Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence, could face 25 years in prison if convicted.

"The fact that we are political prisoners in detention is a great anomaly. For what reason? for having staged a referendum. This is our crime, setting up ballot boxes and voting," he said.

Junqueras seems as determined as when he was jailed in November 2017 after choosing to remain in Spain rather than flee abroad following the failed declaration of independence.

"It is obvious that we will not renounce independence or the right to self-determination," he said.

- Backing for Sanchez? -

His ERC party won 15 seats in Spain's 350-seat lower house of parliament in last month's general election, ahead of the Junts per Catalunya party (JxCAT) of Carles Puigdemont who led the regional Catalan government during the independence bid. The JxCAT won seven seats, giving Catalan separatist parties a total of 22 seats in the assembly.

Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists won the most seats in the election but fell short of an absolute majority. To be sworn in again as prime minister, he is likely to rely on some parties abstaining from voting.

Spain's new parliament will likely vote at the beginning of July on who will become prime minister but Junqueras warned his ERC would not back the Socialists during the investiture vote.

"We will not offer our votes to Sanchez. The separatist victory obliges him to sit at the negotiating table but he continues to look elsewhere. He is afraid of dialogue and if there is no dialogue, there is nothing to discuss regarding an investiture," Junqueras said.

"We have always said that we will not set any red lines for dialogue. That is the starting point," he added.

The ERC has said it is open to dialogue but insists on holding an independence referendum in Catalonia, which Sanchez steadfastly refuses.

Junqueras is the lead candidate in this weekend's European Parliament election for a European regionalist party that defends the right to self-determination, the European Free Alliance.

"I presented myself as a candidate most of all because it is a way to condemn the repression and democratic regression of the Spanish state," said Junqueras, who was already an MEP between 2009 and 2012.

"I am convinced that the European Parliament will not leave anybody out and I will be able to exercise my mandate as a European member of parliament. Europe can't look away when democracy is at stake," he added.