AP Interview: Catalan separatist vows EU parliament fight

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The most prominent jailed leader of Catalonia’s separatist movement is vowing to take his fight to the European Parliament after being suspended as a lawmaker in Spain while judges consider whether he is guilty of rebellion for attempting to divide the country’s territory.

The lower chamber of Spain’s Parliament on Friday suspended Oriol Junqueras and three colleagues from their recently gained positions as national lawmakers because they are currently in jail during an ongoing trial. The rebellion charges stem from a banned referendum and an independence declaration made by the separatist-controlled Catalan government in late 2017.

Junqueras is also running for the European Parliament in elections that take place on Sunday, and polls say that he and his former boss, Carles Puigdemont, who fled the country to avoid arrest, have a high chance of being elected. But the former Catalan leaders face legal challenges to be sworn in as European lawmakers.

“The sole fact that a European lawmaker and a candidate to the presidency of the European Commission is a political prisoner of one of the European Union’s member states is a very powerful message in favor of democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms not only in Catalonia but in all Europe,” Junqueras told The Associated Press on Friday.

The Spanish government has repeatedly rejected the term “political prisoner” to refer to the prosecuted Catalan separatists, pointing out that they were jailed by independent courts according to legal provisions in the country.

It also often repeats that political parties openly advocating for secession are legal in the country, but the only way to achieve it is by attempting to reform the country’s 1978 constitution, which currently prohibits the secession of a region unless all Spaniards vote on it.

Junqueras spoke via video conference from a jail on the outskirts of Madrid shortly before the widely expected announcement that he would be suspended as a Spanish lawmaker.

Speaker Meritxell Batet announced that the governing body of the Congress of Deputies had ruled for the suspension in line with the country’s criminal code, which bans those indicted for rebellion or terrorism-related charges and in preventive custody from holding public office.

But the 50-year-old former no. 2 of the Catalan regional government, who was previously a European lawmaker between 2009 and 2012, told AP that the suspension in Spain doesn’t affect him because he was planning to give up his seat anyway: Members of the European Parliament can’t hold certain public offices in their home countries, including a seat in a national or regional parliament.

Junqueras is running in the European elections as the head of Ahora Republicans, a coalition of Catalan and other small regionalist parties in Spain. Polls give it enough votes for the former Catalan leader to claim one of the 751 seats in the bloc’s chamber, but his chances to be sworn in are unclear given his legal situation.

“For me, it will be a pleasure to return to the European Parliament,” he said, because that would allow him rejoin former colleagues in the bloc’s assembly and “explain to them firsthand the deep injustice that innocent people are in prison.”

Junqueras and three fellow separatists from Puigdemont’s conservative JxCat party were elected last month to a new, fragmented Spanish lower house, along with Raül Romeva, the former Catalan regional chief for international affairs, who won a seat in the Spanish Senate.

Spain’s Supreme Court granted them permission earlier this week to attend — escorted by police — the opening parliamentary sessions of the new legislative term.

While Junqueras has made clear that he wants to give up his seat to another member of his left-wing ERC party, all eyes in Spain are on what the three JxCat politicians will do.

Deciding to accept the suspension but not giving up their seats and leaving them empty would alter the number of deputies needed to form the next Spanish government.

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Parra reported from Madrid

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