The Supreme Sacrifice

Last Saturday, two of the nine Catalan political prisoners, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Turull, informed their jailers that they were going on indefinite hunger strike. Yesterday evening, it was announced that Josep Rull and Quim Forn would also be going on hunger strike. The other five political leaders in pretrial detention on charges of violent rebellion and sedition – Carme Forcadell, Dolors Bassa, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Cuixart and Raül Romeva – could announce other protests in the coming days.

Jordi Turull has spent 276 nights in pre-trial detention and Jordi Sànchez 414

The Catalan political prisoners have taken this most extreme of steps to draw attention to the Constitutional Court’s flouting of the law with regard to the prisoners’ appeals, which are supposed to be settled within a month. Spain’s Constitutional Court has accepted all such appeals in the past year but resolved none. This is surprising as normally only 1% are accepted. Until all domestic legal avenues are exhausted, the prisoners will be denied access to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In short, it is a delaying tactic designed to block access to European justice.

Josep Rull has spent 257 nights in prison and Quim Forn 398 – ACN

Last Saturday also marked 45 years since legendary Catalan pro-independence activist, Lluís Maria Xirinacs, started a 42-day hunger strike in Barcelona’s Model prison calling for the release of political prisoners and 113 jailed members of the anti-Francoist organisation, the Assembly of Catalonia (Assemblea de Catalunya).

There has been much talk of the history of the hunger strike – the last resort of non-violent protest – and its origins in 19th century India and Russia, its use by British and American Sufragettes, conscientious objectors, Gandhi, Irish republican prisoners in the War of Independence, Cuban dissidents and in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981, when IRA member, Bobby Sands, died on the 66th day of his hunger strike sparking riots and an escalation of The Troubles. In Spain in 2018, it highlights the return to the bad old days and reflects how little things have changed in the relationship between the State and insubmissive Catalans.

The hunger strike is the ultimate form of peaceful protest potentially involving the ultimate sacrifice for a cause. It culminates in force-feeding, abandonment or a drawn-out painful death. In David Barnett’s piece published yesterday in the Independent entitled A history of hunger strikes: From the suffragettes to Guantánamo, the author summarises the gruesome guidelines for staff dealing with hunger strikers published by the California Department of Rehabilitations and Corrections:

Someone refusing food will initially feel hunger pangs, but these will disappear after about the third day. Glucose levels will start to fall dramatically. Between days four-to-13, the body will start to break down fatty acids as an energy source, and fatty tissue and muscle will start to be lost.

After the two week point to around 34 days, the striker will feel faint, suffer lightheadedness and dizzy spells, will feel weak and often cold, and suffer “mental sluggishness”. Days 35-42 are, say the guidelines, “considered the most unpleasant phase by those who have survived prolonged fasting” and can bring vertigo, vomiting and a difficulty in drinking water.

After seven weeks without food, you can expect confusion, loss of hearing and/or eyesight, and internal haemorrhaging.

And beyond 45 days? Expect death at any point.

The Catalan National Assembly (Assemblea Nacional Catalana – ANC) has set up a web page where sympathisers can denounce the Spanish judiciary for its disregard for the rule of law and prisoners’ rights. On the third day, the declaration has received close to 200,000 expressions of support. Yesterday, a spontaneous demonstration cut off the Via Laietana in Barcelona and a vigil was held outside Lledoners prison where the hunger strikers are being held. There will be many more peaceful protests, including mass fasting. 400 people gathered last night in front of the Spanish government’s delegation in Barcelona. Scottish trades unions have given their unconditional support and demanded the immediate release of Catalan political prisoners.

Nationally, the media reaction to the hunger strikes has been muted. From those that have commented, there has been much sneering. International coverage has been mainly limited to agency pieces coming out of Madrid. Many major titles have ignored the story completely. Although the world is sadly full of people forced to go on hunger strike and every country has its own problems, many of the headlines and stories are designed to play down the importance of two democratically elected representatives being forced to go on hunger strike from prison to gain access to European justice in a European Union member country in 2018.

The response of Spanish political parties to the announcement of the hunger strikes has ranged from low-key to non-existent. Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, reacted by guaranteeing a fair trial and insisting, once again, that “the judiciary is independent and will do justice”, his customary pretext for inaction on the issue of political prisoners. Ciudadanos leader in Catalonia, campaigning in Andalusia, said that she considered it to be “a very personal matter”. The newly-installed leader of the Popular Party (Partido Popular – PP), Pablo Casado, parroted the Spanish nationalist line. “Spain follows the rule of law and we are all equal before the law. Crimes have consequences and the judiciary acts independently and without pressure. Our territorial integrity and national unity is non-negotiable”. The presumption of innocence is ignored; the unity of Spain all that matters. Far-right party, Vox, is the complainant in a private prosecution against the organisers of the referendum. It is their stated aim to keep the prisoners in jail for as long as possible and conduct a coup in Catalonia so no one was expecting any sensitivity or intelligence from them. Their anti-Catalan, anti-immigration and Spanish supremacist rhetoric, their “reconquest”, resonates in Spain as their success in the Andalusian elections demonstrates. The rise of the far-right in Spain should focus the pro-independentist parties.

The meeting of pro-independence forces in Puigdemont’s base in Waterloo, Belgium, is perhaps a sign that the divisions between the pro-independence parties, so depressing for rank-and-file independentists since they opened up before last year’s referendum, might at last be put to one side. Nevertheless, independentist politicians will have to work hard to restore people’s faith. As the saying goes: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The Catalan republican electorate has repeatedly called for candour and unity from their elected representatives, but the parties have explained little about September and October of last year, repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot and stabbing each other in the back as they try to gain an advantage over their Catalan rivals while offering nothing in the way of effective government. Independentists have grown sceptical of their leaders and despair at the absence of a clear road map leading to the Catalan Republic.

The hunger strike is a desperate measure and reflects the grief felt by many Catalans at the current situation. It is also a coherent, if terrifying step for the non-violent activist to take.

This scepticism is also evident in some reactions to the hunger strikes. Elected representatives have been accused of ineffectively wasting important options and fear that the hunger strikes might be another example of this, akin to the referendum and the unilateral declaration of independence which the politicians and people have been unable to make effective. There has also been criticism of the timing of their decision. Some feel that they should have waited until the trials against the “Catalan process” are over. However, there is no guarantee that the trials will actually take place in the new year, as has been forecast. Strategic foot-dragging by the Spanish judiciary is precisely one of the main reasons for the protest. The pro-independence movement is at a low ebb after the wearisome events of the past year and the hunger strikes could be a way of regalvanising it. Whatever reservations there may be over the wisdom of the protest at this time, this is what they have decided to do. The hunger strike is a desperate measure and reflects the grief felt by many Catalans at the current situation. It is also a coherent, if terrifying step for the non-violent activist to take.

The announcement of the first two hunger strikes on Saturday coincided with the most violent clashes between French police and the yellow vests, “gilets jaunes”, since the demonstrations started at the beginning of the month. Catalan pro-independence activists have eyed the protests with envy as extreme direct action has been effective, with Macron ceding to their demands and shelving the fuel tax increases without declaring a state of emergency. His fledgling party and government are in trouble after only eighteen months in power. It is as if a country has to burn and people have to die for a movement to be taken seriously.

How would they have acted if the Catalans had demonstrated the French way over the past 14 months? There would have been many casualties but the security forces would have been overrun.

In Catalonia, an undeclared state of emergency has existed for over a year despite there having been no violence throughout the independence push. Spain has political prisoners, four of whom are on hunger strike, and has embroiled countless others in legal processes for violent offences without any of the accused so much as breaking an egg. It has been surreal to observe the shocking disconnect between the peaceful reality of pro-independence activism and the “violent independentist” narrative of the Spanish State, unionist parties, unionist media and judiciary pumping out their propaganda for the “oneness” of Spain. The Spanish State does not seem very thankful that Catalan independentists are not as direct as the “gilets jaunes”; they say they are Nazis instead. Spanish police injured a thousand people for voting peacefully in the 1 October referendum. How would they have acted if the Catalans had demonstrated the French way over the past 14 months? There would have been many casualties but the security forces would have been overrun.

However, this is nothing but idle speculation. The Catalans are not the French and their protests are in favour of secession, not against a tax. Something all of us should ask ourselves at some point in our lives is whether we are prepared to die for a cause, for the general good, for others or for a better world.

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