Jailed Catalan separatists take seats in Spanish parliament

Jailed Catalan separatist and elected member of parliament Jordi Sanchez (C) was one of those released to be allowed to register as a lawmaker (AFP Photo/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

Madrid (AFP) - Five jailed Catalan separatist leaders elected to the Spanish parliament last month were temporarily released from prison Tuesday and escorted by police to the assembly to be sworn in as lawmakers.

The Supreme Court allowed the five men, on trial for their role in Catalonia's 2017 secession attempt, to leave jail to take up their seats, but they are likely to be quickly suspended because of their legal situation.

They won office in an April 28 general election that was won by acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists but without a majority.

Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Sanchez, Jordi Turull and Josep Rull won seats in the Congress, the lower house of parliament, while Raul Romeva was elected to the Senate, the upper house.

They swore to respect the Spanish constitution -- the same constitution they are accused of having violated with their independence push -- even as they vowed to remain faithful to the separatist cause.

"True to my Republican commitments, as a political prisoner and by legal obligation, yes I promise" to respect the constitution, said Junqueras, a former Catalan vice-president who heads the separatist ERC party.

The five are among 12 Catalan leaders on trial in connection with a banned independence referendum held on October 1, 2017 that was followed by a short-lived declaration of independence which sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Whenever the Catalan separatists took their oaths, lawmakers from far-right party Vox banged their desks and drowned out their voices.

Boosted by its fierce opposition to Catalan separatism, far-right party Vox won 24 seats and entered parliament in a country that has had no significant far-right party to speak of since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

- 'International embarrassment' -

The conservative Popular Party (PP) and centre-right Ciudadanos have said they will try to stop the five men from occupying their posts.

PP leader Pablo Casado said that allowing the jailed separatists to add caveats when they swore to respect the constitution was an "international embarrassment" that should not be allowed to happen again in the future.

The chambers' governing bodies, which was elected on Tuesday, will now decide whether or not to suspend the five men who returned to jail after the opening session of parliament.

"The suspension is obvious...they can't hold their posts," acting Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo told news radio Cadena Ser.

While the Socialists emerged as the biggest party in the 350-seat lower house in last month's elections, they lack a majority. To be sworn in as prime minister again Sanchez is likely to rely on some parties abstaining from voting.

But if the jailed Catalan lawmakers are not allowed to take part in Sanchez's investiture vote, and are not replaced, the threshold to be approved will be lower and he could be sworn in without relying on Catalan separatist parties abstaining.

- Catalan speakers -

Sanchez, who took over as prime minister in June 2018, has bet on dialogue with Catalonia to ease tensions sparked by the separatist push.

Last week he proposed two Catalans as speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament in what was seen as goodwill gesture.

The outgoing minister for territorial policy, Meritxell Batet, was elected speaker of the Congress while philosopher Manuel Cruz was elected speaker of the Senate.

The pro-independence Catalan party ERC blocked Sanchez's first pick for Senate speaker, Socialist leader in Catalonia Miquel Iceta, because he and his party backed the temporary suspension of Catalonia's regional powers after the 2017 independence declaration.

While the ERC says it is open to dialogue with Madrid, it insists on holding an independence referendum in Catalonia, which Sanchez steadfastly refuses.

A poll published on May 10 by the Catalan government's CEO survey institute showed that slightly more Catalans were against independence than were in favour -- the first time that has been the case since June 2017.