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Opinion The Politic Blog

From the Cell

On August 17, 2017, a van swiftly drove into the bustling walk-way of Las Ramblas—the life line of Barcelona, pulsing with tourists, market booths, and unsuspecting families enjoying a peaceful afternoon stroll. The bloodshed that ensued was devastating: 13 people, including a 3-year-old child, died and over 100 more were injured in the horrific act of terrorism. In the following days, the Interior Minister of Catalonia, Joaquim “Quim” Forn, expediently mobilized Catalan forces, orchestrating a successful investigation leading to the identification of the mastermind behind the attack. 

The loss of life sent a ripple of devastation through the nation, but no one anticipated the seismic aftershock that would follow two years after the terrorism crisis was thought to be resolved. Recent revelations have uncovered that the nation in mourning failed to recognize another silent actor who seemingly abetted the terrorists from within: the Spanish government. 

Breaking news unveiled this summer by El Público, one of two national Spanish left-wing newspapers, reveal a thread of intel sewing a sinister link between the 2017 terrorist attack and the Spanish Intelligence Services. It’s come to light that the Spanish government may have played a role in organizing or abetting the murderous incursion on Las Ramblas. El Publico has surfaced documented proof that the mastermind behind the attack, the Imam of the mosque of the city of Ripoll in Girona, was working as an informant for the Spanish Secret Services (CNI) prior to the attack, providing intel about terrorism and jihadist mobilization. CNI, El Publico discloses, had been actively communicating with and financing the Imam until the very day before the attack, though the Spanish Interior Ministry denies having had any intelligence of the attack beforehand. If the established ties between the Imam and the Spanish government already raise alarms, the timing of the attack—about six weeks before the independence referendum—sends chills down Catalonia’s collective spine. Daniel Serrano, the head of the Popular Party in Catalonia, has accused Catalan president Quim Torra and some of his ministers of “feeding a paranoid conspiracy theory.” But Catalans recognize that staging the terrorist attack could have provided the perfect ruse for the Spanish government to declare a state of emergency and send a brigade of military police into Barcelona. 

Throughout the weeks prior to the Catalan independence referendum, the Spanish government repeatedly asserted that it would locate and confiscate all ballot boxes gathered by the Catalan organizers, definitively thwarting the people’s attempt to vote. In the face of such an adamantly anti-democratic government declaration, the Catalan independentists took clandestine measures in order to procure ballot boxes and sneak them into Catalonia, evading the hawk-eyed government’s watch. In the beginning of August 2017, the Spanish government held its breath as all the ballot boxes arrived in Northern Catalonia. Under the pretense of responding to the terror attack, the Spanish police could have declared a state of emergency in order to militarily occupy the city of Barcelona in the final weeks leading up to the referendum, all the while keeping a vigilant eye out for the ballot boxes and any other preparations for the vote. As it was, Quim Forn’s swift diffusion of the situation obviated the need for the Spanish military police to take station in Barcelona. Though one terrorist fatally drove the van into the populated street killing over a dozen civilians, El Publico’s revelations suggest that Spain itself might have utilized terror as a vehicle for carrying out its claims and murdering the Catalan movement in its early steps. Gabriel Rufián, a representative of the Left Republican Party of Catalonia (ERC), posed the following question to the Spanish congress: “I don’t want to feed conspiracy theories, but can anyone imagine what would happen if an American media outlet uncovered the possibility that the masterminds of 9/11 were informants of the CIA?” Rufián demanded that the Spanish government launch an investigatory commission following El Publico’s revelations, but despite the ample incriminating evidence, the Spanish government ignored his request and refused to address the issue.

***

“I get goose bumps.” Laura Masvidal, Quim Forn’ wife, uttered tremulously as I sat in her second story flat in Barcelona this past July, mere days after El Publico’s revelations broke in Catalonia. “My husband told me there were things that one day would come out to light,” she remembered aloud. “He said there were things that were very strange and he suspected that something surreptitious was going on.” She spoke on her husband’s behalf, for, following the referendum,, Quim Forn has been locked away in a prison cell for almost 700 days, a political prisoner amongst eight others, still awaiting court adjudication. As Ms. Masvidal and I sat atop her elegant, sprawling couch, the house rang with the silence of emptiness. “If, as it has been published, the Spanish government indeed had an informant and had information about a terrorist attack that they did not act upon, this is extremely serious. There were civilian lives taken. It is very scary to be under a government that could do something like that. Just as grievous is the silence of the Spanish press about this scandal. I fear that this will explode in their face.” Masividal paused. “It is very dangerous.” 

Masvidal decried the horrifying implications of living under a government that would allow the murder of its own citizens to tighten its grip of control. She painted harrowing pictures of Spanish democracy’s definitive death, were these allegations to be confirmed. She exhorted the need for the Catalan people to speak out against Spain’s increasingly iron-fisted oppression in the absence of accurate media coverage that could galvanize international support. But the haunting silence that followed her description of the perilous position in which her nation’s ideals and freedom hang was punctuated by the acute personal pain she suffered from living with her husband behind bars. 

While breaking news uncovering Spain’s alleged involvement in terrorism against its own citizens deserves the public’s attention, the quieter undercurrent of personal victimization coursing through the Catalan independence movement cannot be neglected. For people like Masvidal, it’s not just a narrative of a nation robbed of liberty. It’s also a soft soliloquy whispered by dozens of spouses and children as they try to find comfort in empty beds, imagining their loved ones unjustly chained in a cell for yet another night after almost two years. It’s not just an elegy of one national voice extinguished by oppression. It’s also a symphony of silence piercing through the lives of those who can now hear their loved ones’ voices for only four minutes per phone call. It’s not just a tale of a people’s denial of basic democratic rights. It’s also a devastating denial of fundamental human rights for those who no longer simply long for smothered ideals, but also for the touch of their young children and of a world beyond their concrete cell.

***

Forn’s elderly mother weeps incessantly. “She does not understand how her son, who is a good person and who has always tried to do the best for others, is now in prison,” Masvidal described of her mother in law’s misery. Just two years ago, as Interior Minister of Catalonia, Forn had been publicly hailed, venerated as the political hero who had successfully risen up to defend Catalonia in the aftermath of the 2017 terrorist attack. Now, her daughter-in-law is forced to explain to her that her son remains imprisoned by a government that deems his ideas worthy of bondage. Eighty-four years old and in declining health, Mrs. Forn mournfuly faces her looming mortality, punctured by the excruciating realization that her remaining days to visit with her son are likely fewer than those she could count on one frail hand. 

“When he was imprisoned in Madrid for many months, we could only take her to see him twice. It is a very taxing trip. She has physical limitations naturally. She cries a lot, especially when the holidays come. Christmas was especially difficult.”  

Masvidal continued to paint a picture of her family after Spain had violently reached into her life and erased her husband from their daily portrait. “I remember the first time my girls and I visited my husband in jail,” she recalled. “My daughters had a fight with him because they were indignant that we had raised them to believe that they were living in a democracy and did not have to worry about preserving their rights.” Masvidal softly shook her head, her eyes slightly downcast. “Now that the deprivation of our rights has affected us personally they have matured and realized there are many collectives of oppressed people for whom we should fight and have solidarity with.” While she recounted the daily challenges her family faces as a result of the loss of her husband’s freedom, she noted that her family is faring better than some of the other families beset by the same injustice. “My daughters are 21 and 24 so they can understand what is happening, and they can take their father’s cause as their own. The situation of the political prisoners who have little kids is so terrible. They do not understand—they only see that their parent has been taken away.” 

When I asked her how she withstands the daily absence of her husband, Masvidal emphasized the importance of raising her voice and reclaiming her agency. “I give my perspective, I try to help the cause as much as I can. Most of all I keep the hope. I don’t give up. It cannot be that there is this abuse of democracy… We only wanted to vote.”

Masvidal spoke with the eloquence of a woman forced to retell the rehearsed story of her husband’s imprisonment countless times over the previous 18 months, but with the passion of a woman who lives through renewed injustice and suffering every passing moment. “The worst is that they robbed me of my partner, my loved one, my life has been cut in half, economically my husband cannot work so that also affects us a lot. My life is full of uncertainty.  It is also very sad to see that this project that we were so hopeful and excited about has failed.”

While Masvidal tenderly spoke on her husband’s behalf, I inquired as to whether I might be able to speak to him directly and somehow circumnavigate Spain’s stringent incarceration policies in order to amplify his story from behind the cell walls. Masvidal sat pensively for a moment and then replied that if I gave her a list of questions, she could try to bring them to him and deliver his responses. And with that, Laura Masvidal and I had a plan. I departed from the flat in Barcelona that still burgeoned with pictures and gifts sent in tribute of the political prisoner no longer residing there. About a week later, I received a letter from the man behind bars himself. 

***

“We are the only political prisoners out of the hundred convicted in the prison unit,” Forn described of the Catalan Independentists held in prison. “The rest are common criminals: people who have committed murder, sex crimes, drug dealing, and violent robbery. I don’t know why they were convicted and I think it is better not to ask; if they want to explain it to me they can always do it,” Forn wrote.

“The trial was very hard,” Forn attested in response to my inquiry regarding the political tumult he’s undergone, now fighting for his personal freedom in addition to that of his nation. “The conditions we were subjected to were not easy, and our current situation is intolerable and unjust. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions (ACNUDH) has requested the release of all the Catalan political prisoners without any response from the Spanish government or judicial system. If we receive a guilty verdict, I know Catalan society will rise against it. We are not going to ask for a pardon—it would mean that we presume a conviction and I insist that absolution is the only possible judgement.” 

When I asked Forn if he planned to renounce his independentist ideas or carry forward his vision, Forn valiantly answered: “We went to the Supreme Court of Spain with the intention of not renouncing any of our ideals and claims. We have committed no crime, we are democrats and pacifists. When the civil liberties organization Omnium Cultural started the campaign ‘Ho tornarem a fer’ (‘We’ll do it again’), it expresses the way of thinking of a very important part of the citizens of Catalonia. It means that despite the repression, the fines, prison and exile, we will not renounce our hopes of freedom. No tribunal can judge us on the basis of our political ideas as long as they are based in democratic and pacifist principles.” Despite the disheartening circumstances of his daily life, a steadfast optimism emanated from his words. Like his wife, Forn displayed a relentless commitment to positivity and hope—the ultimate means of breathing life into a movement currently gasping for a breath of freedom. 

“All fights that have represented an important social or political change have required sacrifice,” Forn wrote. “For me, it is an honor to maintain my coherence with the political commitments and ideas I have defended through my life. I cannot renounce them despite being incarcerated and threatened by the government.”

Forn concludes his letter: “To end I would like to explain to American students how the conflict between Catalonia and Spain goes beyond a debate about the independence of our country. The real debate is about respect for fundamental freedoms, civil liberties and the right to political dissent. Today in Spain these rights and freedoms are seriously threatened. Federal prosecutors are prosecuting freedom of association, assembly, expression and peaceful demonstration. The judgement in our case will determine if the judiciary can continue prosecuting these constitutional rights. There is much on the line, we risk the factual abolition of constitutionally protected fundamental rights and freedoms in Spain. This is why we call on defenders of democracy in Catalonia, Spain, Europe and the U.S., regardless of their opinion on Catalan independence, to help us condemn the situation we are living in Catalonia.”

Forn is only one of the nine men and women jailed on the grounds of their ideas. While the nation hangs in abeyance, unsure which day the Spanish court will announce its ruling on the charges against them, the Catalan collective braces itself and prepares to demonstrate against the anticipated death-blow to Catalan aspirations for democracy. Though Spain continues to reject any possible dialogue with Catalan independentist advocates, instead resorting exclusively to violence and intimidation, the people continue to speak out: in the newspapers, on the streets and from the cells. Spain may or may not have been complicit during the bloody summer afternoon in Las Ramblas two years ago. But, as Forn and eight other political prisoners languish in jail and their spouses file into empty bedrooms for the nearly 700th night, there is no doubt that Spain has become judge, jury and executioner of both democracy and fundamental civil rights in Catalonia today. Nevertheless, as Forn declared in his letter and as the Catalan people demonstrate through their indomitable mobilization: “We’ll do it again.”