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Spain’s right-wing opposition is enraged by government plans to abolish sedition, the charge used against Catalan separatist leaders, decrying the move as a gift to pro-independence parties in exchange for parliamentary support.
Parliament approved a bill on Thursday to reform the penal code and remove what Spain’s left-wing coalition government considers an outdated crime, replacing it with one better aligned with modern European standards.
And the change should be underway before the end of the year, say Spanish media reports.
In response, the far-right Vox party called a protest in Madrid on Sunday, while the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) called for demonstrations across the country to voice their opposition.
Right-wing parties say removing sedition, the charge used to convict and imprison nine Catalan separatists for their part in a failed 2017 independence bid, will pave the way for another bid to secede from Spain.
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Initially sentenced to between nine and 13 years behind bars, the separatists were pardoned last year by the left-wing government, provoking the fury of Spain’s right.
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“Great for those in Catalonia who want to take another hit!” The deputy of the PP Edurne Uriarte said in a parliamentary debate on the planned changes to the law.
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The failed bid for independence sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.
Spain says its efforts to extradite them have failed because many European countries simply do not recognize sedition as a crime, and the bill seeks to recast the offense as “aggravated public disorder.”
The bill aims to “reform the crime of sedition and replace it with a crime comparable to that in other European democracies,” Sánchez said earlier this month.
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“The crimes committed in 2017 will continue to be present in our penal code, although no longer as crimes of sedition… but as a new type of crime called aggravated public disorder,” he said.
But even Puigdemont has expressed doubts about the legal change, saying separatists who welcome the move “have learned nothing from the last five years.”
The new offense would carry a maximum sentence of five years behind bars, compared to 15 years for the offense of sedition.
Opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijoo asked Sánchez to “clarify if he is actually reforming the crime of sedition to protect Spanish democracy or if he is just trying to survive politically,” implying that the bill is a revenge for the support of the independence party in parliament.
“The PP’s position is clear: we will increase the penalties for sedition and rebellion, we will classify them as crimes and we will classify the holding of an illegal referendum as a crime,” he said about his party’s position, with general elections on the horizon.
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Some reluctance on the left
The PP managed to ensure that Thursday’s vote was vocal, a rare procedure in Spain in which lawmakers verbally declare their support or opposition to a bill, in a move that forces the most reluctant Socialists to put their cards clearly on the table.
Spain’s penal code currently defines sedition as “publicly raising and using mass disorder to prevent the application of laws, by force or through illegal means.”
More succinctly, the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language defines it as a “collective and violent uprising against authority, against public order or military discipline without reaching the seriousness of rebellion.”
The crime has survived several legal reforms, the last of which was in 1995, but critics say it dates back to the 19th century.
“We are reviewing a crime that was enacted in 1822 in Spain, dating back 200 years when there were still military uprisings,” Sánchez said earlier this month, pointing to Germany, where sedition was abolished in 1970.
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But reclassifying it as aggravated public disorder has not satisfied some on the left who fear it could be used against protesters.
“We are concerned… (that the new crime) may have some limiting effect on the right to peaceful demonstration,” argued Pablo Echenique, spokesman for the far-left Podemos, the junior coalition partner of the Socialists who was behind the attacks. movements to abolish sedition.