In one of his adventures on the highways of 17th-century Spain, Don Quixote encounters a gang of prisoners ‘manacled and strung together by the neck, like beads, on a great iron chain’. Undeterred by Sancho’s protestations that these are criminals on their way to serve as galley slaves in just punishment for their crimes, Don Quixote, declaring that it is his duty as a knight errant to provide ‘succour for the wretched’, fights off the guards and frees them.
In something of the same spirit, Spain’s prime minister has just announced a pardon for Catalan separatist leaders. Nine politicians, serving sentences of up to 13 years for offences including sedition, are now to be released after almost four years in jail.
Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez previously declared that the sentences — imposed after Catalonia’s illegal referendum and short-lived independence declaration in 2017 — should be served in full. But he seems to have changed his mind, declaring a few weeks ago that: ‘There is a time for punishment and there is a time for concord.’
Spain’s constitution allows a government to grant a pardon if it believes it will serve a wider good. In this case, the government says that the measure will defuse tensions and heal divisions in Catalonia, allowing dialogue with the region’s newly formed pro-independence government. Certainly many Catalans have greeted the pardons as a welcome conciliatory gesture. One separatist told me she thought the pardons ‘politically intelligent’ since they deprive her movement of its imprisoned martyrs and a narrative in which the Spanish state is cast as a cruel oppressor.
Opposition parties however suggest that Sánchez’s real aim is to ensure the continued support of the Catalan separatist MPs in the national parliament on which his minority left-wing coalition government depends.