Pardons not a step towards referendum, Spain warns Catalan separatists

Catalan leader Jordi Cuixart holds a banner in front of the Lledoners prison after the Spanish government announced a pardon for those who participated in Catalonia's failed 2017 independence bid, Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, near Barcelona, Spain, June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Albert Gea

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's government said on Wednesday that pardons granted to nine jailed Catalan separatists leaders did not mean it was prepared to discuss a referendum on independence for the region.

The Supreme Court authorised the release of the nine politicians and activists after the cabinet approved the clemency measure in a gesture it hopes will foster dialogue to keep the region part of Spain.

The nine are expected to leave prison later on Wednesday.

They were sentenced in 2019 to between nine and 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds, after an unauthorised referendum on a breakaway that led to a short-lived declaration of independence and Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

The pardons are conditional, and a ban on the leaders holding public office remains in place.

"It is not just a question that it is unconstitutional, it is that we can't keep fracturing the Catalan society," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament, answering calls from separatist legislators for another vote authorized by Madrid.

Meanwhile, conservative opposition parties have renewed their calls for Sanchez to resign over the pardons, arguing that the move undermines Spain's unity.

Opinion polls show just about half of Catalonia's population favours splitting from Spain.

The government also ruled out a blanket amnesty for around 3,000 people with legal cases related to the 2017 referendum, which would also include politicians who fled Spain such as former Catalan regional government leader Carles Puigdemont.

"There won't be amnesty, there won't be self-rule, what there will be is dialogue and politics," said Regional Policy Minister Miquel Iceta.

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo said Puigdemont remained a fugitive sought by the courts.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro and Cristina Galan; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Alex Richardson)

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