Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez delivers a speech at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, on June 21, 2021 to outline his government's plans to pardon the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid. AFP
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his government would pardon the nine jailed leaders of Catalonia's failed 2017 independence bid on Tuesday as a first step towards ending the political conflict over the wealthy region.
As he spoke in Barcelona's opera house, several hundred separatists protested outside, demanding still more concessions, and one member of the audience interrupted him for a few seconds shouting "Independence".
"I am convinced that getting these nine people out of prison ... is a clear message of concord," Sanchez said on Monday at the event in the region's main city attended by around 300 members of Catalan civil society.
"Catalonia, Catalans we love you," Sanchez said in Catalan at the end of his address, with the Spanish, Catalan and EU flags behind him.
Polls show about 60% of Spaniards are against freeing the politicians who were sentenced for their role in an unauthorised independence referendum and a short-lived declaration of independence. Madrid responded at the time by imposing direct control over the region from 2017-2018.
But Sanchez is betting the time has now come for a political gamble that he hopes will ultimately cement his legacy, weaken the independence push and resolve the country's biggest political crisis in decades.
"We don't expect that those seeking independence will change their ideals, but we expect (they) understand there is no path outside the law," Sanchez said at the event.
The cabinet's next chance to rubber stamp the pardons comes at its meeting on Tuesday, which should lead to the separatists' release from jail a few days later.
Sanchez aims to ease tensions in the northeastern region and kick-start negotiations between the central government and Catalan authorities.
"To reach an agreement someone must make the first step. The Spanish government will make that first step now," he said. The social cost of keeping the conflict simmering was too high, he added.
Catalonia's separatist head of government Pere Aragones told Reuters last week the pardons would be a welcome first gesture to start a dialogue but considered them insufficient, demanded an amnesty for all those involved in the 2017 events, which could benefit around 3,000 people.