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BARCELONA – On a green boulevard in Barcelona is the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, an organization known in Spain as much for its literary prizes as for its dreams of an independent republic in Catalonia.

But its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be found: for three and a half years, he has been living in a prison cell.

For the Spanish authorities, Mr. Cuixart is a dangerous criminal, convicted of sedition for leading a rally at a time when he and other separatist leaders were seeking to create a separatist state in the northeastern region of Catalonia. Yet for his supporters, and in the eyes of many foreign countries, he is a political prisoner sitting in the heart of Europe.

“They want us to change our ideals,” Cuixart said, speaking through a thick pane of glass in the prison’s visitors section one recent afternoon.

More than three years have passed since the Catalan independence movement nearly tore Spain apart, and the politicians in Madrid have apparently won. The secession plans are largely dead. The sound of the broken pots, which had been a part of the movement, is rarely heard at night in Barcelona.

But Spain’s leaders, now engrossed in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, still have a political problem. For many, Cuixart and eight other men jailed for sedition are now martyrs who, according to human rights groups, are being held for nothing more than expressing and acting on their views. policies.

For the Spanish government – and for Europe as a whole – they have also become a diplomatic puzzle, raising accusations of hypocrisy against a region known to demand greater democratic freedoms in the world.

Russia this year cited Catalan detainees to deflect calls from Europe for the release of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. The United States lists the prisoners in its human rights report on Spain and qualifies their incarceration as a form of political intimidation.

Even the legislators of the European Union, of which Spain is a member, have spoken of their fate. When the bloc discussed the responsibility of Hungary and Poland vis-à-vis EU rule of law standards, some MEPs noted a double standard: Spain, they said, held political prisoners.

The imprisonments stem from a long-standing conflict, still unresolved, over identity, language and who has the right to rule in Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million inhabitants on the border with France.

In 2017, Catalonia was plunged into chaos when its leaders attempted to hold a regional referendum on independence in defiance of the Spanish courts. Madrid’s national government sent riot squads, which seized the ballot boxes and even beat some of the voters.

The separatists still claimed victory, despite the fact that more than half of the voters did not vote and the polls showed that Catalonia was divided at the time of independence.

Defiantly, the Parliament of Catalonia went ahead and declared independence anyway – only to suspend its own declaration before being dissolved by the Spanish government. By then, Mr. Cuixart had already been arrested and other separatist leaders fled to Belgium.

In 2019, courts sentenced Cuixart and eight others to between nine and 13 years in prison after finding them guilty of sedition.

“He is in prison simply for exercising his right to speak out,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads Amnesty International’s Spanish office, said of Cuixart.

Arancha González Laya, Spain’s Foreign Minister, said the case brought back painful memories in the country of other independence movements, including the killings by the terrorist group ETA, which fought for decades for the independence of the Basque North.

“They are not political prisoners. These are politicians who broke the law, ”Ms. González Laya said in an interview.

“The question is: do you have the capacity in Spain to express a different opinion? Answer: Yes. Do you have the right to unilaterally decide to dismantle the country? No, ”she added.

But David Bondia, a professor of international law in Barcelona, ​​said the Spanish government was considering an overhaul that would weaken its sedition laws, which he sees as an admission that there was a mistake in jailing the separatist leaders.

The case of Mr. Cuixart was even more problematic from a legal point of view. He was the head of a cultural group, but his sedition trial took place within a legal framework reserved for politicians, Mr Bondia said, raising due process issues.

For Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the situation is reminiscent of the era of Franco’s dictatorship, where political opponents lived in fear of persecution.

“For us, it hit hard and took us back in time,” he said.

Mr Puigdemont, also wanted for sedition, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, where he sits in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was lifted in March, allowing him to be extradited.

The shadow of Franco played a role in the beginnings of Omnium, the cultural organization that Mr. Cuixart would lead.

It was founded in 1961 by a group of businessmen to promote the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish government banned its use in public. Shortly after, the Francoists closed Omnium and the group went underground.

When Mr Cuixart was growing up on the outskirts of Barcelona in the 1980s, Franco was dead and many vestiges of his regime had long been swept away. But Mr. Cuixart still saw an intolerance towards his culture.

There was the name of Mr. Cuixart, for example. His first name, Jordi, was the Catalan name of the region’s patron saint, Saint George the dragon slayer. But in official documents, Mr. Cuixart was registered under the Spanish name Jorge, a common practice in the country, which had banned the registration of Catalan first names.

“They saw the difference as a threat,” he said.

Mr. Cuixart was drawn into the world of Catalan letters by an uncle who owned a bookstore soon known for its literary salons filled with poets and political figures. The atmosphere was “a creative hurricane,” Cuixart said, which would inspire him for decades.

As a young man, Mr. Cuixart immersed himself in the business world, first working in factories in Barcelona, ​​then saving up to open one of his own. After his entrepreneurial profile began to develop, he joined Omnium in 1996.

The group had become since its underground days a key force in Catalan culture. He revived the Night of Saint-Llúcia, a night-time literary festival in Barcelona that had been banned by Franco, and awarded the Saint-Jordi Prize for the best novel written in Catalan.

Omnium also awakened the nationalist feelings that Mr. Cuixart had felt as a teenager.

“Being Catalan was more than a language and a lineage,” he said. “It was a decision to live here and be here. This is what made you Catalan. “

In 2010, Spanish courts rejected a charter that granted broad powers to self-government, four years after being approved by voters and the regional parliament. The move sparked widespread anger and separatist flags became common in the countryside.

Soon, parliament was discussing a decision to declare an independent state, long seen as a pipe dream of the radicals.

Mr Cuixart, who in 2015 had become president of Omnium, sometimes disagreed that his group had also joined the campaign for independence – it was a cultural organization after all, not a political organization. But in the end, he said not joining would have been the wrong side of the story.

The crucial day came for Mr. Cuixart on September 20, 2017, when the Spanish police, trying to prevent the holding of the referendum on independence, stormed a Catalan regional ministry on suspicion that voting plans were organized there. But a giant crowd surrounded the site.

Mr. Cuixart and an independence leader, Jordi Sánchez, tried to mediate between the demonstrators and the police. They made lanes through the crowd for officers to enter the building and announced that anyone who considered violence was a “traitor.”

As the night wore on, Mr Cuixart said he feared violent clashes. In one recording, he is seen on top of a vehicle calling for the dispersal of the crowd. Despite taunts from protesters, most left and Mr Cuixart said he then went to bed.

The vote took place amid the crackdown the following month. But Mr. Cuixart recalled a previous act of civil disobedience when there had been no consequences after having dodged a military project in his youth. He didn’t think he had much to fear this time around.

But then the accusations came: sedition, one of Spain’s most serious crimes. Such draconian charges for activity at a protest surprised even legal experts who said sedition laws – which cover crimes less serious than outright rebellion – have rarely been used in any country.

“I had to find out what ‘sedition’ was even,” Cuixart said.

Mr. Cuixart now spends his days at Lledoners Prison, a penitentiary built for around 1,000 inmates, and home to drug traffickers and convicted murderers. He said he spent his afternoons meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who is against Catalonia’s independence, said he had little pity for Mr Cuixart’s situation because the separatists themselves provoked it.

“I do not forgive them because they have broken our society,” said Mr. Cañas, adding that the push for independence was still dividing Spanish homes. “I have friends that I don’t talk to about this anymore.”

Mr. Cuixart, for his part, said he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it again, he said. It was Spain that needed to change, he said, not him.

“At some point Spain is going to have to think and ask, ‘What are they going to do with me? “, He said. “Eliminate me?” They can not.

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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