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OPINION - So it is possible in Europe: going to jail for your opinion!

Can you imagine, political scientist Bart Maddens asks, that a politician who is pleading for Flemish independence gets arrested because of “agitation against the state”? Of course not! Or can you? In Spain it is happening: Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez are behind bars.

Breaking news: the Belgian court of justice decides to detain the president of the Flemish Peoples Movement, Bart De Valck. His crime? He is in favour of an independent Flanders. He is agitating the Flemish people against the Belgian state. He is inciting rebellion. He is in favour of a one-sided declaration of independence by the Flemish Parliament. He risks a prison sentence of no less than fifteen years. The chance that he will be set free soon, is small. After all, the judge fears that he will simply continue his rebellious activities if he gets free on bail.

Luckily, this is just a far-fetched political fiction. Bart De Valck is a free man and will undoubtedly stay so, no matter how hard he is pleading for Flemish independence. But, in Spain, only a few days ago, the nightmare has become reality. The two most important leaders of the independence movement, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were arrested on suspicion of ‘rebellion’. It is simply baffling how far Madrid dares to go in its repression against the legitimate Catalan independence movement.

True, months ago I speculated about a possible harsh repression the Spanish government against the Catalans. But honestly, in the back of my head I always thought: this is just some kind of paranoia. Something like that is simply unthinkable in a member-state of the European Union. Even when on the 1st of October the stormtroopers of the Guardia Civil arrived at the polling station that I was visiting as an international observer, I was thinking: this is just a piece of intimidating theatre, these policemen will not actually attack harmless voters, right ? And yet that was precisely what happened moments later.  With an improbable brutality the ‘robocops’ started to charge against the innocent voters and I was also harassed and violently thrown to the ground.

But even then I hadn’t learned my lesson. Catalan political scientists with whom I spoke a week after the referendum, predicted that the Spanish authorities would soon start to arrest the leaders of the independence movement. Some even feared for their own freedom. Paranoia, I thought once more. My colleagues are just a bit overstrained and can’t see matters in perspective anymore. Spain is not Turkey, right?  Spanish citizens enjoy real freedom of speech, freedom of association, and a whole series of other democratic rights? But then it happened, yesterday evening. No paranoia, but rock-hard reality. Where will this end?

Is Puigdemont next?

The arrest of Puigdemont, the Catalan prime minister, and his ministers is in the air. Politicians of the Partido Popular are playing openly with the idea of just prohibiting the separatist parties and organising new elections for the Catalan parliament immediately afterwards, which will then consist of pro-Spanish parties only. Madrid would also tinkering with the idea to abrogate the Catalan language laws in education via the famous article 155 of the Spanish constitution. For months, the pro-Spanish media have waged a smear-campaign against immersion-education in Catalan schools. These schools have become ‘fabricas de independentistas’, they write. Away with that! Nothing but Spanish at school. Would Madrid dare to go this far? Of course not, I would have written a few weeks ago. Get real!

Today, I know better. The Spanish government is truly capable of anything to repress the Catalans. There are no limits to Spanish repression. Some days ago, a colleague from Barcelona mailed me in panic: “The Spanish State just wants to annihilate us.” The same desperation is also expressed in this YouTube-movie of Òmnium Cultural in response to the arrests of "the two Jordi's":

Madrid can and dares to go this far, because it knows the European Union will look the other way.  If there are ‘higher’ interests at stake, it quickly becomes apparent that all the rhetoric about European values, human rights, democracy and so forth are nothing more than an empty and hypocrite plethora of words, words, words... It is nothing more than a layer of polish upon the established structures of power. If it gets a bit too hot and this established order is under pressure, the layer of polish rapidly blisters off. Today in Catalonia, far more is at stake than just independence. It is about the protection of democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms. If Spain gets away unpunished with trampling upon these basic principles, other EU-countries will soon follow. And then, sadly, it might not be so imaginary at all that Bart De Valck will soon disappear behind bars…  

Written by Bart Maddens on Tuesday the 17th of October on the website of the Flemish state television ( Bart Maddens is full professor of political science at the university of Leuven. He is paying close attention to institutional discussions, pertaining to regional and national autonomy. Translated from Dutch by Ward Dewitte.

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