BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The former vice-president of Catalonia returned as a prisoner to the regional parliament in Barcelona on the Tuesday, the first time he had been there since he was imprisoned for his role in the failed 2017 secession attempt from the rest of Spain.
Oriol Junqueras and five other former Cabinet members released from prison for the occasion were greeted with applause and cheers of “Liberty!” by a small crowd of supporters inside the parliament building.
They were not handcuffed, and no uniformed guards were escorting them, although there were police deployed outside. Regional president Quim Torra and the speaker of the house greeted them with hugs and warm handshakes on arrival.
This is the first time that the six have returned to the Catalan parliament since they were taken into custody following the failed October 2017 independence bid. They and three more colleagues were convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds in October by Spain’s Supreme Court and given sentences of nine to 13 years. They are serving their sentences in prisons in Catalonia.
They were summoned to the regional parliament to attend a committee session addressing the consequences of the central authorities’ temporary takeover of the region’s control at the height of the 2017 crisis.
“I want to begin by saying that I am very happy to be back in the parliament and to be able to talk to all of you,” Junqueras told the commission. “I am very happy because I love the parliament and love democracy and love dialogue.”
Junqueras then used most of this half-hour appearance to insist that he and his colleagues are unjustly imprisoned and that the solution to the political crisis provoked by the separatist movement is dialogue with Spain’s central government and unionist parties.
“Nothing we have done is a crime, because holding a referendum is never a crime,” Junqueras said about the independence referendum his government held before declaring independence.
“We are convicted, we are in prison, but will continue to fight to build a better country and a society that is more just. And to do it with all the tools of our own state.”
Lorena Roldán, the leader of the pro-union Citizens party in the Catalan parliament, responded to Junqueras by asking him to “ask forgiveness” for the secession attempt.
“You have used your appearance here only to preach to your supporters, to continue your movement, to cause more conflict,” Roldán said. “It is a pity that you did not come here to ask for forgiveness.”
The return of the prisoners comes at a time when the separatist movement is struggling to maintain the unity of its three main political parties.
The situation in Catalonia is Spain’s gravest political challenge in decades. Polls show residents in the wealthy region of 7.5 million are roughly evenly divided over the question of independence.
Spain’s constitution states that the country is indivisible.