Spain's divisive Catalan amnesty bill takes effect

Carles Puigdemont, former president of Catalonia, is the most high-profile and controversial beneficiary of the amnesty law (Josep LAGO)
Carles Puigdemont, former president of Catalonia, is the most high-profile and controversial beneficiary of the amnesty law (Josep LAGO)

A controversial Spanish amnesty law for Catalan separatists involved in a botched 2017 secession bid came into effect on Tuesday, with judges now charged with applying the measure.

The law, which was approved by parliament on May 30 and is expected to affect around 400 people, came into force after it was published in Spain's official gazette.

The most high-profile and controversial beneficiary is Carles Puigdemont.

The former president of Catalonia led the failed 2017 independence drive in the wealthy northeastern region before fleeing Spain to avoid prosecution.

He has lived in Belgium in self-imposed exile ever since.

Judges will have two months in which to apply the legislation on a case-by-case basis.

Many judges are opposed to the amnesty and may refer it to Spain's Constitutional Court or the European Court of Justice, which could lead to delays in its application in some cases.

"A new battle begins," Jordi Turull, secretary general of Puigdemont's hardline separatist JxCat party, wrote on X.

"Applying the law... won't be simple. But sooner or later we will succeed," he said.

- A flurry of applications -

Catalonia's other major separatist party, the more moderate ERC, said around 30 of its members had applied for amnesty.

They include Oriol Junqueras, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the secession bid then later pardoned by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's government in 2021.

However, he and the others remain banned from holding public office -- a provision that would be lifted by the amnesty.

Debate over the amnesty has dominated Spanish politics for months following Spain's inconclusive July 2023 general election, which left Puigdemont's JxCat in the role of kingmaker.

Sanchez, who previously opposed the measure, agreed to grant the amnesty in exchange for the separatists' parliamentary support to secure a new term in office in November.

But the amnesty deal triggered mass protests by its right-wing opponents.

While Puigdemont was Catalan regional leader, his administration pressed ahead with a referendum on independence on October 1, 2017, despite a ban by the Spanish courts.

Several weeks later, the Catalan parliament made a symbolic declaration of independence, prompting the central government to impose direct rule on the region.

The events triggered Spain's biggest political crisis since the advent of democracy following the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco.

- Puigdemont: a complex case -

Puigdemont's case is expected to be one of the most complex.

The amnesty law allows for the lifting of a warrant for his arrest, which would allow him to return to Spain.

Last month, Puigdemont's JxCat came second in Catalan regional elections, trailing the Socialists, although the separatist parties lost their majority in the Catalan parliament for the first time in a decade.

He wants to return to Spain in time for the regional parliament to vote on the new Catalan government, which must take place by June 25.

But that looks unlikely.

Public prosecutors believe that one of the main offences linked to the secession bid -- misappropriation of public funds, a charge levelled against Puigdemount -- is not covered by the amnesty.

The issue is one of interpretation. The law allows the amnesty to be applied if the funds were used to finance the pro-independence process, but not if the money was taken for personal gain.

Judge Pablo Larena on Tuesday informed police that the arrest warrant for Puigdemont would remain in force until a decision is made about whether amnesty can be applied in his case or not.

Sanchez argues that the amnesty will improve the social and political climate in Catalonia but his critics say it is unconstitutional and purely aimed at maintaining the support of separatists.

Writing on X, Cuca Gamara, secretary-general of the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP), said the amnesty had allowed Sanchez to "pay the rent for six months" to the separatists in order to remain in power.