Un observador inglés (13) – Dear Spain, don’t criticise the international media. Blame your own government.

Six months ago today, Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, failed to stop a referendum in Catalonia taking place – despite saying he would, and despite spending over €87m brutally trying to prevent it, deploying the Spanish National Police and Guardia Civil to attack innocent voters of all ages. In the weeks prior to 1st October 2017, Rajoy’s right-wing Spanish government warned its country’s media against publishing any advertisements about the referendum, sending Guardia Civil agents to editorial offices in Catalonia – effectively banning them from doing so. Not only did it try to censor the Catalan media (in addition to clearly controlling certain media in Madrid), but it also blocked websites and apps that gave balanced and practical information about the referendum, or on how to vote. They searched printers for ballot cards (even the car boot of a printing company’s cleaner), banned posters, events and debates, blocked telephone operators and even threatened to cut off the power, clearly violating human rights and the freedom of speech. And now … for that same government and its ‘diplomats’ to openly criticise the international media for reporting the true facts about what happened before, during and since 1st October, it is an utter disgrace.

Spain is a country full of rich material for foreign writers. But not only has Rajoy spectacularly failed to defuse the Catalan issue (in fact he’s done more for independence than anyone else on the planet), but his actions have also unearthed Spain’s underlying fascism and Francoism for us all to see. It was obviously always there … but it is now clearly visible. As Ian Gibson, the renowned Hispanist and biographer, said on Deutsche Welle radio: ‘The Spanish right-wing says that it isn’t Francoist but it has Francoism in its genes, in its DNA. It’s outrageous.’ This Francoism is ugly, Spain. It’s very ugly, and you need to do something about it. But that does not mean telling us not to write about it.

In a weird sense, I’m glad that this whole issue is now in the hands of top lawyers in Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and Belgium. I’m glad that the media from all over the world are reporting on it all, in every language. The EU Commission and Juncker himself have done bugger all. It needs international lawyers and the international media to continue to expose the truth, and if Spain’s ‘ambassadors’ don’t like it, then … tough. Get proper jobs. As the top human rights lawyer, Aamer Anwar, who is representing Clara Ponsatí in Scotland, said the other day: ‘Our defence in court may make uncomfortable reading for the Spanish government in the full glare of international scrutiny. We are confident that the outcome will make it even more so.’ Go for it.

I’ve written here before about my experiences of 1st October, and how I was incensed that the ‘Madrid media’ failed to report on the true events – unlike the international (and Catalan) media. It incensed me that the EU remained silent. It incensed me that Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, went on CNN and BBC stating that the images of police brutality were ‘fake news’. It incensed me and it still does. Late October (I think it was), Spanish ‘politician’ Juan Carlos Girauta, the C’s spokesman, voiced his concern in Congress about the international media’s coverage of events in Spain, appearing to suggest that it should be better controlled (he then blocked me on Twitter and I wasn’t even following him). This time last week, the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, said on his LBC radio show, about the detention of Carles Puigdemont in Germany: ‘I thought European Arrest Warrants were for drug smugglers and criminals, not for democratically-elected political opponents of the Spanish government.’ We’ve since had the weekly German magazine, Stern, comparing Rajoy to Milosevic – and The New York Times reporting that ‘Spain is creating a situation where Europe’s judges rather than its own politicians are being asked to solve Catalonia’ – yes, because Rajoy is used to getting his judges in Spain to resolve his ineptitude. In the past few days, Spanish ambassadors, diplomats and Spanish authors have criticised The Washington Post, Le Monde, The Times and other international media for daring to question Spain’s democracy, calling it a ‘campaign of disrepute’. But, no, no, it’s not a campaign of disrepute. It’s called reporting the truth.

There was no ‘rebellion’ in the weeks prior to the Catalan referendum of 1st October, nor on the day itself, nor was there since. There was no ‘violence’ – except the violence carried out by Spain’s national police and Guardia Civil. As far as I know (and as far as some videos now show Rajoy appearing to also confirm it), there was no ‘misuse of public funds’, either. So why are there nine political prisoners in Spain (still without any trial) and a further seven in self-imposed exile fighting extradition charges? The fact is this: there shouldn’t be. It is clearly an injustice, and it is up to the international lawyers and foreign media to finally expose it. Someone has to.

Conversation with Alex Salmond on LBC Radio

Here’s my discussion about European Arrest Warrants with the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, on his LBC radio show yesterday (25 March 2018). Alex says in his introduction, ‘I thought EAWs were for drug smugglers and criminals, not for democratically-elected political opponents of the Spanish government’. Here’s the audio:

Un observador inglés (12) – This needs international mediation, not international arrest warrants.

The news is breaking fast – faster than usual – and so it’s just a short blog this week for various reasons.

This time last Sunday, Carles Puigdemont was in Geneva, attending the ‘International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights’. From there, he went to Finland. At the time of writing this, he has been detained in Germany, on his return to Belgium, as a result of Spanish judge Llarena reactivating a European Arrest Warrant for him, as well as for other Catalan politicians in self-imposed/forced exile. Time will tell what the German authorities will do – but Spanish prosecutors are already trying to force an extradition order. Switzerland has already stated that it will not proceed with any extraditions on political motives (politicians Anna Gabriel and Marta Rovira are in Switzeland). I’d personally be surprised if the UK also extradited Clara Ponsatí, who is teaching at St.Andrews University in Scotland. She’d travelled to Austria, and then also visited Munich and London (where she took part in a protest) last week, all before the EAW was reissued. Three other Catalan politicians remain in Belgium, where they have already complied with legal authorities there … at least when the EAW was initially issued and then later withdrawn.

I could try and sum up the week’s news … I could mention the Telva photographs of Ines Arrimadas in the Catalan Parliament, or Cristina Cifuentes’s (non-existent?) university grades, or the Belgium v Spain rugby match, or the Director of Communications for the European Parliament receiving the ‘Orden de Isabel la Católica’ Award from Spain (why? why?), or about Puigdemont’s foreign trips causing ‘certain discomfort’ to Spain’s foreign minister (obviously), or about N.Sarkozy being investigated for election funding fraud (unlike M.Rajoy), or that ‘far-right clowns’ dressed up in Guardia Civil uniforms tried to break into Puigdemont’s house in Belgium, or that Joaqium Forn was denied release from prison again, even with €100k bail … or that the imprisoned Jordi Sánchez relinquished his candidacy for the Catalan Presidency to Jordi Turull, who has now also been imprisoned, along with 4 others: Carme Forcadell, Raül Romeva, Dolors Bassa and Josep Rull. Because that is the real news. Yes … there are now 9 Catalan politicians in prison, and 7 others in self-imposed/forced exile (at the time of writing). They are all where they are because of Spain’s trumped-up charges of plotting and/or actually causing a ‘rebellion’; in reality, they tried to organise a vote, a referendum.

I’ve written here before about the unjust justice system in Spain. I’ve written about the ghosts of Francoism. I’ve written about Felipe VI’s diabolical speech on the Catalan issue, (and here, tooand here), and why I think the EU’s handling of it all stinks. I’ve written about the recent reports criticising Human Rights and freedom of expression in Spain. And I’ve written several times about the need for dialogue and mediation in this whole Spain/Catalonia affair.

From my point of view, 9 Catalan politicians are in jail and 7 others are in exile for one simple reason: Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, refuses to accept the results of the Catalan elections that he himself called on 21 December last year, after also applying article 155 to Catalonia. That, again in my opinion, is a disgrace. It is even more of a disgrace that the EU Commission has turned a blind eye to it. This doesn’t need international arrest warrants. It needs international mediation. And it now needs it urgently.

Un observador inglés (11) – Thou must not Tweet, protest, insult God, the Virgin Mary or the Crown.

Sometimes the week’s news from Spain, Catalonia (and Geneva) needs little or no further commentary. It’s been one of those weeks …

A French documentary film, ‘Catalonia: Spain on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, is to be screened today, Sunday 18th March, at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva. It is a very apt end to the week, especially as the screening is to be followed by a discussion with Carles Puigdemont. Tickets for his talk sold out as soon as it was announced – with media ‘from half of Europe’ asking to attend. I think Spain’s Public Prosecutor’s Office was also touting for a ticket via Interpol – but not to listen to the talk. They probably wanted to sneak in and smuggle Puigdemont back to Madrid, but the Federal Office of Justice in Switzerland has made it very clear that it doesn’t carry out extraditions for political reasons. Not many countries do, actually. It’s called ‘normality’. It’s why Spain has withdrawn the European Arrest Warrant for Puigdemont, and not issued one for CUP politician Anna Gabriel (who’s also in Switzerland), nor for Clara Ponsati, the former Catalan education minister, who was in self-imposed exile in Brussels but has now moved to Scotland to teach at St.Andrew’s University. On the way, she took part in a demonstration in London (with no problem at all) against Spain’s political prisoners, and was also interviewed by BBC Scotland and other UK media. I imagine a request to extradite her for helping to organise a referendum in Catalonia would be laughed out of a court in Scotland. Literally.

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) has confirmed that Puigdemont’s visit to Switzerland is a ‘private invitation’. He will remain there at least until Wednesday, when he’s also giving a talk at the Graduate Institute on ‘separatism, self-determination and the future of Europe’. On Tuesday 20th March, there are also side events (under the banner of ‘Human Rights Regression in Spain’) at the 37th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council. The events include ‘The Right to Self-Determination in the 21st Century’ and ‘Breaches of Fundamental Rights in the EU: The Catalan Case’. The wife of imprisoned Jordi Cuixart, Txell Bonet, and another exiled minister, Meritxell Serret, will also attend. The internationalisation of the Catalan issue is growing stronger by the week.

Today’s screening in Geneva is also apt because it hasn’t been a particularly positive week on all matters related to ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of expression’ in Spain. On Tuesday – ironically the same day that the City Council of Barcelona was ordered to replace a bust of king Juan Carlos I from its plenary hall (after it had been removed in July 2015) – the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based in Strasbourg, unanimously ruled that Spain had wrongfully condemned two Catalans for burning photos of the king in 2007. Enric Stern and Jaume Roura had been found guilty of ‘insulting the monarchy’ 11 years ago. They had initially been sentenced to 15 months in prison, but it was later reduced to a fine. The ECHR ruled that burning the photos was ‘justifiable political criticism’, freedom of expression, and that it could not be ‘construed as incitement to hatred or violence’. The court ordered Spain to reimburse the €2700 fine imposed, as well as €9000 in legal costs. Some people went out to celebrate by burning photos of the king.

On that same day, Tuesday, a report was published by Amnesty International, entitled, ‘Tweet … if you dare: how counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain’. It criticised Spain for a ‘sustained attack on freedom of speech’, that the country’s law against glorification of terrorism was ‘draconian’ – and that people shouldn’t face jail simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking. The report concluded that the toughening of the law in 2015 had led to ‘increasing self-censorship and a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression in Spain’. Amnesty’s International Media Manager, Stefan Simanowitz, tweeted, ‘Question: Which of these could land you in prison in Spain … tweeting a joke, posting a YouTube video, rapping, or holding a puppet show? Answer: all of them.’

If this isn’t enough, a couple of days ago the ‘miracle’ of all news broke, thanks to an ‘association of Christian attorneys’. Spanish actor, Willy Toledo, who’d posted something about God and the Virgin Mary on Facebook in July last year, is to be investigated by a Spanish judge for insulting them. Yes, you read that correctly. He is to be investigated for insulting God and the Virgin Mary. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook seemed okay with the post last year, apparently … but not God and the Virgin Mary. As you can imagine, I have a couple of questions about this: will God and the Virgin Mary be called to testify? How do they know that God and the Virgin Mary are insulted? Someone mentioned that in 2014, Spain’s former interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, awarded a medal to the Virgin Mary … and so he might know.

In other news, Joaquim Forn, the former Catalan interior minister who has been imprisoned without trial, has now been diagnosed with ‘pulmonary tuberculosis’ at Estremera jail. Not only has he been imprisoned without trial, therefore, but he’s clearly been imprisoned without heating and medicine, too – and they’re refusing to release him for treatment. It is a disgrace.

This week, too, in a country where the Francisco Franco Foundation freely exists (‘don’t mention Franco’) and the ex-assistant of the king of Spain has recently been named its president, the Catalan grassroots cultural and civic organisation, Omnium Cultural – an NGO with more than 50 years of history and over 100,000 members – had its headquarters shut down and searched by the Guardia Civil for the second time in six weeks. Seven employees were initially held. A Spanish judge ordered that if Omnium summoned people to demonstrate around its HQ whilst the Guardia Civil was raiding it, then they would be committing a crime of ‘sedition’. About 9 months ago, I didn’t even know what ‘sedition’ was. Then I learnt that it was ‘inciting people to rebel [and I presume ‘rebellion’ means with violence] against the authority of a state or monarch’. I didn’t realise it also included peaceful protest and demonstrations, though, but in Spain it seems to.

At the time of writing, it is still precisely unclear why a Senegalese immigrant and street vendor, Mmame Mbage, died in the Lavapiés district of Madrid the other night. There are some reports that he collapsed and died from a heart attack, before any police aggression. What is clear, however, is that there are some disturbing photographs and videos of police action in the area.

Spain’s National Police decided that an incident where a black African actor, Marius Makon, who suffered bleeding above the eye after being hit in the head with a beer bottle by a woman who’d said, ‘I don’t want to see blacks in here’ in a bar in the Móstoles area of Madrid … would not be investigated as a racist crime.

Yesterday, mass demonstrations by pensioners took place across Spain and against the Spanish government, all demanding dignified pensions and to be re-evaluated in line with the cost of living. Meanwhile, the king of Spain was photographed skiing with his family.

What else happened? Oh, yeah. Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has started a video blog. It is probably what he meant last week when he said he’s going to do everything possible and even the impossible, if the impossible is also possible.

Un observador inglés (10) – Foreign robots … and Catch 155.

Whilst writing this week’s blog, some very sad news came in. The body of 8 year old, Gabriel Cruz, was found near Níjar, Almeria. He’d been missing for 12 days. His body was found in the car boot of the girlfriend of the boy’s father. RIP.

This time last week, Carles Puigdemont, already exiled in Brussels, was ‘himself to blame’, according to a report from an office of the Spanish Interior Ministry, of being threatened by someone riding on top of a Spanish Army tank. Yes, you read that correctly. It was Puigdemont’s own fault that someone on top of a tank had threatened him. As Puigdemont himself pointed out, in Spain there are “innocent people in preventive detention for their ideology”, and “MPs, mayors, singers, car mechanics and clowns being prosecuted” – indeed, it is a country right now where art has been censored, rappers receive long prison sentences for criticising the royal family, yet fascism is rife and political corruption goes mainly unpunished … oh, and you can threaten Puigdemont from the top of a tank and get away with it.

It’s been one of those weeks again. The deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, labelled as ‘foreign robots’ those people who published and circulated photos of Spanish police brutality against innocent Catalan voters on 1st October. Yes, you read that correctly, too. Foreign robots. That includes me. I’m a foreign robot. It also includes the BBC, CNN, Sky News – actually, it includes every media outlet in the world – and every human rights observer, too. They’re all foreign robots, according to little Soraya. You probably thought she was a robot, but no – it’s the other way round.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is clearly a foreign robot, too. He won’t be receiving a Christmas card from Soraya. Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council this week, he criticised the use of Spanish police violence on 1st October. “I was dismayed by the violence which broke out during October’s referendum on independence in Catalonia,” he said. “Given what appeared to be excessive use of force by police, the government’s characterization of police action on 1st October as ‘legal, legitimate and necessary’ is questionable.” He also reminded the Spanish government that “pre-trial detention should be considered a measure of last resort” – and he also encouraged “resolution of the situation through political dialogue”.

What else happened? Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the PSOE (once upon a time a political party and/or an ‘opposition’) announced that Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, should table a motion of no confidence in himself if he fails to pass the budget on 23rd March. Yes, you read that correctly again: he should, not must. Sánchez didn’t say he’d force a motion of no confidence, only that Rajoy should volunteer to do so. Gosh, crikey … really strong words from Sánchez, therefore. Rajoy, meanwhile, continued to say some crazy stuff. And I mean really crazy stuff. This week, it was: “I will speak with absolute clarity. I will do everything I can and a little more than I can, if that is possible, and I will do everything possible and even the impossible, if the impossible is also possible.” Don’t forget, he’s being paid to say stuff like that.

Martin Glenn, Chief Executive of the Football Association (FA), said in reference to the yellow ribbon worn by Pep Guardiola in support of political prisoners: “I can tell you there are many more Spaniards, non-Catalans, who are pissed off by it.” Yes, Martin, but what Spaniards actually told you they were pissed off? Anyone ‘high up’? Were you pressured to do something about it? Pep was eventually fined £20,000 by the FA … for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of political prisoners, although Spain insists there aren’t any political prisoners.

Four judicial associations in Spain called for stoppages, without ruling out an indefinite strike, if the Spanish government doesn’t improve upon “professional conditions and the separation of powers”. Media entrepreneur, Jaume Roures, himself ‘under suspicion’ for allegedly helping the Catalan independence movement, stated in an interview that, “It’s like MacCarthyism, but in Europe – or like when they separated people on buses by the colour of their skin.”

Around 5.3m people joined the International Women’s Day strike across Spain on Thursday 8th March – a truly historic event. Clara Ponsati, former Catalan education minister, and who has been in self-imposed exile in Brussels (alongside Carles Puigdemont, Meritxell Serret, Toni Comín and Lluís Puig), has announced that she is returning to teach at the University of St.Andrews in Scotland. It seems that she is already in Scotland.

Catalan Parliament speaker, Roger Torrent, announced that he’d signed a resolution to formally propose Jordi Sánchez, currently one of Spain’s political prisoners (yes, he is a political prisoner), for investiture as Catalan president – with the debate scheduled for 12th March. This came about after Carles Puigdemont’s annoucement last week to ‘provisionally’ renounce his own candidacy as Catalan president – as well as his decision to take the Spanish state to the Committee of Human Rights of the United Nations. Jordi Sánchez petitioned to a Spanish judge to be released in order to attend the investiture debate … but you can guess the rest: Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled to keep him in prison. The investiture debate has been postponed whilst Sànchez appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. Spanish government members have cleverly observed that ‘you can’t run the Catalan government from prison’ … which is exactly why Sànchez is being kept in prison (and without any trial), so that he can’t run the Catalan government. It’s Catch 22. Or Catch 155.

A major pro-independence rally calling for the implementation of the Catalan Republic has just got underway here in Barcelona. I’ve just also seen a report that Spain has announced the appointment of a ‘Fake News Ambassador’. I don’t know if that is to combat fake news (or news they claim is fake), or to create fake news, but I’ll try to find out …

Un observador inglés (9) – Don’t mention Franco. I mentioned him once, but I think I got away with it.

To explain (if needed) the title of this week’s blog: in perhaps the most famous episode of Fawlty Towers, the manic hotel manager, Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, has a major problem behaving in front of some German guests. ‘Don’t mention the war!’ he says to one of his staff. ‘I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.’ Then, returning to the shocked German guests to take their food order, he can’t stop himself: ‘So, that’s two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering, and four Colditz salads.’ ‘Will you stop talking about the war?’ cries one of the guests. ‘Me? You started it!’ retorts Basil. ‘We did not start it!’ comes the reply. ‘Yes, you did,’ insists Basil, ‘you invaded Poland.’ First broadcast in 1975, it was a brilliant mockery, not of Germans, but of Basil Fawlty himself – the fact that there were people like Basil who regarded all Germans as being responsible for Nazi Germany, and the rise and support of Adolf Hitler. 1975. Just keep that in mind for a moment …

Here’s a quick recap on some of the week’s news, as I think it helps to put things in perspective:

On Monday, the pro-government (& pro-monarchy) media in Spain reported that the negative reception Felipe VI received in Barcelona [I wrote about Felipe & ‘rocket science’ here], and the snub from the city’s mayor and the speaker of the Catalan parliament, all put the future of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in jeopardy. Er … it wasn’t true. The MWC has just completed one of its most successful events ever held in Barcelona. Here are some key figures from the press release of the organisers, GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association), issued on 1st March, entitled ‘GSMA wraps up hugely successful Mobile World Congress 2018’: more than 107,000 visitors from 205 countries, including more than 7,700 CEOs – up from 6,100 CEOs in 2017. More than 2,400 exhibitors, more than 3,500 international media and industry analysts, and the 2018 MWC contributed approximately €471m and over 13,000 part-time jobs to the local economy. ‘We had another highly successful Mobile World Congress, on so many fronts,’ said John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA. He said the event was ‘one of our most successful ever’, and that the only disappointment was the weather. The press release crucially also confirms: ‘MWC 2019 will be held 25-28 Feb 2019 in Barcelona’ and that it ‘will be hosted in Barcelona through 2023.’

Just think. If Spain’s pro-government media were scaremongering about the negative impact on the MWC of Felipe VI’s reception in Barcelona, do you think they’ve distorted the truth about a few other things, too? I mean, 3,000 major corporations (including banks, car manufacturers, telecom operators, food and drinks groups) have ‘apparently’ closed their businesses and moved their HQs out of Catalonia, leaving thousands of staff redundant and office blocks empty. So, did the MWC participants notice anything different? No! Of course not! Banks were still open, cashpoints worked, cars were still visible, hotels, restaurants and bars were still open, the shops were full and selling loads of great stuff, the telecoms worked, the infrastructure worked, and you could still eat jamón, drink Damm or Moritz beer, Freixenet or Cordoníu cava, and even rent or buy a Seat VW car if you wanted to. Visitors probably also found that the Catalans were willing and able to speak to them in any language required: English, French and Spanish.

Also in the news … thanks to the Streisand effect, every major media outlet in the world explained very clearly why Pep Guardiola wears a yellow ribbon: it is in protest at Spain’s political prisoners. A TV reporter in Spain, however, inferred that it was to support a charity to fight prostate cancer.

The Times newspaper published a scathing editorial about the situation in Spain, stating that the ‘Spanish government’s imprisonment of pro-independence activists was plainly excessive … pre-trial detention has raised questions among civil rights organisations across Europe’ and that ‘Spain should allow Puigdemont and other leaders to return and enter a dialogue’. The Economist published an article entitled, ‘Why Spanish courts censor art, speech and rap lyrics’. Enric Millo, the Spanish government’s delegate in Catalonia, said on radio that ‘technically, there were no [police] charges on 1st October’ against Catalan voters … despite Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch, and hundreds of other international organisations and observers, as well as the global media, clearly witnessing it for themselves.

Xavier García Albiol, the leader of the PP party in Catalonia (what’s left of it), and a man tall enough to play basketball (I mention that because he’s criticised others’ real qualifications) – was named as an example of racist and xenophobic politics in a report issued by the Council of Europe. In any other country, that would be seen as a disgrace. On Twitter, I wrote that Albiol would consider it as an award. He blocked me.

650 lawyers from around Spain denounced the violation of rights in Catalonia to Europe. Despite accusing many Catalan politicians with malfeasance of public funds (part of the arguments for why there are still 4 political prisoners jailed without trial in Spain), Rajoy’s government admitted that the Catalan government spent €0 in organising the Catalan Referendum on 1st October … a referendum that Rajoy spent over €87m trying to prevent. Spain demanded the resignation of Albert Ginjaume, Finland’s honorary consul in Barcelona, apparently because he had lunch with a pro-independence supporter. Spain has now also demanded an explanation from the Peruvian ambassador after the Pervuvian honorary consul in Barcelona voiced support for the dismissed Finnish consul. This ‘diplomatic inquisition’ looks set to continue.

The Spanish government has vetoed any investigation by Congress about the relationship with Spain’s intelligence services and the Imam of Ripoll, the ringleader of the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils last August. 500 trade union representatives from all over Europe campaigned for the immediate release of political prisoners. Pensioners held mass protests against the Spanish government. The house being rented for Jorge Moragas, Spain’s UN ambassador in New York (previously Rajoy’s cabinet chief, and mainly responsible for his diabolical policies in Catalonia) has 11 bedrooms and a squash court. The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) has compiled a list of countries that use excessive police violence against demonstrators, criticising them in front of the UN. Spain is on the list alongside Congo, Togo, Sudan and Honduras. Another rapper, Pablo Hasél, has been sentenced to two years in prison for ‘injuries to the crown’ and ‘crimes of glorifying terrorism’, after posting messages on Twitter and uploading a song on YouTube. An ex-assistant to Spain’s king emeritus, Juan Carlos I, is to become the president of the ‘Francisco Franco Foundation’ (yes, there really is a Franco foundation) … and which brings us back to Franco (not that he was clearly ever gone in any of the above news). The Spanish government has said it is not going to exhume any of the 33,000 victims buried at Franco’s mausoleum, the ‘Valle de los Caídos’, as it is too expensive. It did, however, spend around €2m maintaining the mausoleum over the past few years, and it did find funds to exhume members of the ‘División Azul’ [the Blue Division, a Spanish force that also fought for Hitler] and repatriate them. A group of MEPs visited the mausoleum on Friday and called it an ‘insult’.

Franco. Don’t mention Franco. I’ve mentioned him a few times now but hopefully I’ve got away with it. Carles Puigdemont mentioned Franco this week, too – as part of an exclusive interview published in The Guardian newspaper, coinciding with his decision to take the Spanish state to the Committee of Human Rights of the United Nations, as well as ‘provisionally’ renounce his candidacy as Catalan president. ‘I was educated in the Franco era,’ he said. ‘We could only speak Catalan at home; it was prohibited at school and in public media. There’s a whole generation that was not allowed to talk Catalan publicly.’ The remark was met with some fierce cricitism on social media: Franco died over 40 years ago … why did Puigdemont have to bring up Franco yet again? Oh, and why do the foreign media keep mentioning Franco? Why? Let me try to briefly explain …

I don’t pretend to speak for other foreign writers about Spain, but what I do know is that we don’t all wake up each day deliberately looking for something to write about Franco. We don’t need to look for it, either, because it is already there. But we don’t want to write about Franco or even have to mention the bastard. Let me clarify that: I think some writers do still want to expose more about the past and Franco, and rightly so – because much was covered up. But I don’t think we want to deliberately associate it or draw parallels with current events … but it’s hard not to, it really is. Franco is dead, yes. But Francoism is clearly still breathing in many circles, and it is not only disturbing but repulsive. Think of 1975 and Basil Fawlty. Think of ‘Brand Germany’ then … it was still being mocked on TV (although, as I say, the mockery was aimed at those who regarded all Germans as having something to do with ‘the war’.) Franco died in 1975. ‘Brand Spain’ then became great for many years (it was cool, I wrote here) – but today, today, Spain is being associated with Franco more than ever. Sort it out, Spain.

Un observador inglés (8) – Felipe VI, rocket science, Barbra Streisand & Pep Guardiola.

When I came back to work here in Spain (well, to Barcelona) in early June 2007, to run another magazine company, a friend of a friend (I won’t give his/her name) invited me for dinner and said: ‘If you ever want to meet Prince Felipe, I can organise it.’ Back then, Felipe VI was still just the Prince of Asturias. I stared at the person and thought: ‘Why? Why would I ever want to meet Felipe?’ Before I could politely shrug it off and say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not sure I need to’ – the person, who’d already realised I wasn’t impressed, added: ‘He’s a great friend of mine’ – un íntimo amigo mio, they always say, don’t they? – although he/she then added, ‘but I admit he’s not a rocket scientist.’ So without me even saying anything, a name-dropping ‘intimate acquaintance’ of Felipe had already told me that the royal wasn’t exactly very intelligent. Bear with me, but let’s keep Felipe and that ‘rocket science’ stuff in mind …

I’ve written here before about some of the surreal things that can happen in a week of Spanish ‘politics’, and it’s been one of those weeks again. It started with a pop star, Marta Sánchez, singing some lyrics she’s written for the Spanish national anthem – a song that doesn’t have any lyrics. Her words included, ‘Great Spain, I thank God for being born here’ and ‘my beloved land … I can’t live without you’. Marta lives in Miami. There was also a report about her once having 15m pesetas stashed in a plastic shopping bag from ‘El Corte Inglés’ to avoid paying tax. After performing her song, many of Spain’s political right were over the moon. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted gushing praise for it, saying that an immense majority of Spanish people feel represented by the song. His PP party probably felt familiarity with the 15m stashed in a plastic shopping bag, too. Luckily a PSOE spokeswoman said that ‘our national anthem doesn’t have any words, and that’s that’.

What else happened? Oh, yeah, the king of Spain’s sister, Elena, won an award for her love of the bullfight. Accepting the award, she said: ‘To love the bulls is to love this Spain in which we all fit.’ What else? Spain’s Finance Minister, Luis de Guindos, will become vice president of the European Central Bank on 1st June, unless Europe can come to its senses beforehand. De Guindos was once an advisor for Lehman Brothers, until it collapsed and declared bankruptcy in 2008. In court, a man knicknamed ‘bigotes’, which means moustache (although he doesn’t have a moustache) implicated persons in a corruption scandal to Spain’s ruling PP party – but very little was reported about it in Spain’s pro-PP media.

Catalan politician Anna Gabriel decided to stay in Switzerland instead of attending a Supreme Court appointment in Madrid, as she said she wouldn’t have a fair trial. Actually, she probably wouldn’t even have a trial, let alone a fair one. After a video interview from Geneva, in which she spoke perfect French, some journalists focused superficially on her new hairstyle instead of analysing Spain’s ‘unjust’ justice system. It annoyed me – especially as one of the harshest critics was a veteran journalist called Pepe Oneto, who has a Hitler hairstyle. A national arrest warrant was issued for Gabriel, but not an international one. Apparently for an international arrest warrant you need some proof for why the person should be arrested. With so many people heading to Brussels, Geneva, Strasbourg, London, Paris, the UN and the European Court of Human Rights, it might make you wonder whether the real issue is with Spain’s ‘justice’ system after all … no?

Spanish police tried to arrest a TV comedian who was dressed like Carles Puigdemont whilst he was filming a sketch. Spain’s Civil Guard checked the private plane of Pep Guardiola’s family when it arrived at Barcelona’s El Prat airport, also in search of Carles Puigdemont. They also checked the vehicle in which Guardiola’s daughter was travelling. Amnesty International published its Human Rights report for 2017/18. In it, it accuses Spain of restricting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and using excessive force against peaceful protests in Catalonia, and much more.

Marta Rovira and Marta Pascal, the heads of two Catalan pro-independence parties, as well as Artur Mas, the former president of Catalonia, all had to go in front of Spain’s Supreme Court, too (and others will surely follow). Pascal and Mas left court without any preemptive measures; Rovira was granted bail of €60,000. Spain’s National Court also summoned former Catalan police chief, Josep Lluís Trapero, adding a new crime of sedition related to the independence referendum. It basically means they’re trying to put him on trial for not wanting to hit anyone on 1st October, or for not ordering his police to prevent or attack citizens innocently trying to vote on that day.

Talking of hitting people, let’s get back to Felipe VI, rocket science, and also Barbra Streisand, yellow ribbons and Pep Guardiola. Confused? Don’t be …

Bear this news in mind during the same week: a Spanish judge embargoed the publication of a book called ‘Fariña’, all about Galician drug trafficking, at the request of a former mayor of ‘O Grove’ in Pontevedra. It immediately shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller charts. A Majorcan rapper, ‘Valtònyc’, was sentenced to 3 years and 6 months in jail for a song in which he calls the Spanish royal family ‘thieves’. A hashtag of ‘#LosBorbonesSonUnosLadrones’, meaning ‘The Bourbons [Royal Household] are thieves’, quickly went viral – and the video of the song has now been seen by millions. A work of art, ‘Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners’, by the artist Santiago Sierra, was ordered to be removed from ARCO in Madrid, the international arts fair, and which was to be inaugurated by Felipe VI a day later. The work also showed blurred images of others prosecuted in Spain under contentious circumstances in recent years, including two puppeteers. The news that the art was being removed provoked global media interest, from the BBC to the New York Times, was reproduced online for all to see – and the work immediately sold for some €80,000. Away from Spain, but linked to it, the Football Association has charged Pep Guardiola for wearing a yellow ribbon, which he wears in support of the political prisoners in Spain. I noticed many Manchester City supporters immediately voicing support for him online, and they were suggesting wearing something yellow for this afternoon’s Arsenal v Man City cup final. I collated a few of their posts and tweeted something about it, and it also seems to have gone a bit viral. At the time of writing this, the FA’s yellow ribbon ban looks like it might also have backfired. Good for Man City fans, that’s what I say …

There’s something called the ‘Streisand effect’ – named after Barbra Streisand, after she tried to suppress photos of her Malibu home. It is defined as ‘the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely’. Suppression of art and freedom of expression is counterproductive. Suppressing someone’s right to vote also has the same effect. When will the Spanish government (and Spain’s royal household) learn that banning freedom of expression always backfires?

I’ve written here before about Felipe VI’s diabolical broadcast speech on 3rd October, his lack of any apology for the injuries sustained by innocent Catalan voters on 1st October, and the missed opportunity to have possibly defused the Catalan issue overall. I have also written about him avoiding the Catalonia stand at FITUR. No need to repeat all that right here. It is, however, linked to why he has been made unwelcome (in the eyes of many) in Barcelona for the opening of the Mobile World Congress (MWC). At the time of writing this, I believe the mayor of Barcelona will not be attending his official royal reception tomorrow, nor will the speaker of the Catalan parliament, nor any dignitary from the Catalan government. They will, however, be attending an opening dinner this evening at the Palau de la Música, at which Felipe VI will also attend, in order to show their institutional support to the MWC organisation itself. It seems Felipe VI is clearly not welcome in Catalonia by a vast proportion of the population – and he’s brought that on himself.

There’s something seriously wrong in Spain and I’m now convinced that it starts at the very top. I was thinking about it yesterday, watching Anne, Princess Royal, greeting the Scotland and England rugby teams lined up before the match at Murrayfield (we won’t talk about the result), with the great sound of bagpipes, and then the National Anthem and Flower of Scotland sung loudly, very loudly. No boos, no jeers, no whistles. Just joy, really. From everyone. Apparently Nicola Sturgeon and Princess Anne were both drinking champagne out of the Calcutta Cup in the changing room afterwards. It would never happen in Spain – it’s too late.

If you ban a vote, more people will want to vote. Censor a book, more people will want to read it. Ban music, more people will want to listen to it. Ban art, it will sell more. Ban a yellow ribbon, everyone will ask why, and then they’ll probably also want to wear some yellow. Most importantly, if you are respectful to people, if you don’t suppress freedom of expression, if you don’t lock up people or put them on trial for whatever political views they may hold, then you will also earn respect in return. It’s really not rocket science.

Un observador inglés (7) – Let’s be clear: Rajoy is attacking Catalonia, Catalans, and now also Catalan.

I might have imagined it, but I thought the week started on a little bit of a ‘charm offensive’ by Spain’s ruling PP government. Every Monday morning, first thing, they have a comité de dirección ‘steering committee’ meeting – and they posted a photo of them all smiling with their coffee and water. Perhaps they were smiling about Rajoy’s ‘dancing’ at a Murcia wedding over the weekend; he dances like he jogs – it’s a sort of mincing fast walk. Or maybe someone just told them to smile at the camera. ‘Look happy! Look friendly!’ It’s very hard, I know, to picture anyone in the PP looking friendly – but they tried it for nearly 48 hours. I think someone came to that Monday morning meeting and said something Monty Pythonesque, like: ‘We’re crap! Everyone hates us! Our families hate us, our kids hate us, and people regret voting for us. We’re now losing in the polls. We’re clearly corrupt. We’ve lost Catalonia. We’ve now got Strasbourg and the UN hanging over us about political prisoners and Puigdemont’s investiture. We’ve got MEPs criticising our choice of homophobic candidate for the European Court of Human Rights, who are now also condemning us for our treatment of ETA prisoners. It’s not looking good, M.Rajoy. We need to change tactics. We need to tell the judge not to lock up any Catalans this week, hide Soraya, hide Albiol, and let’s … let’s be friendly. It’s worth a try. Let’s talk about our achievements.’ What achievements? ‘Let’s invent some … ’

So on that same day, someone had the idea to wheel out the PP’s catalogue model – you know who I mean, that ‘trajes de hombre by Emidio Tucci’ guy – whatshisname? – Iñigo de la Serna, the ‘Fomento’ minister or whatever he is – and they quickly came up with a new hashtag of ‘#ConnectadosalFuturo’, to make it look like the PP are ‘connected to the future’ even though they’re clearly still living deep in the past. Then they all started to tweet and retweet the same message – that the Spanish government is ‘acting in Catalonia at an overwhelming pace, driving strategic investments that improve the quality of life for the Catalans, favour the competitiveness of the business sector and provide stability for investments’ … hashtag connected to the future. And they kept waffling on about Barcelona El Prat’s record number of visitors (which has nothing to do with them) and the plans to do marvellous things at Girona’s Costa Brava airport, too – ‘with the expansion of the aircraft parking platform, the passenger terminal area and the AVE station’ … hashtag connected to the future … blah blah blah bullshit.

Even the dancer himself tried to appear jolly and friendly for a day or two. He’d obviously been given instructions to retweet anything Emidio Tucci could come up with, such as boasting about ‘El Prat’s 2017-2026 expansion plan to increase the airport’s capacity to 70m passengers a year’ … hashtag connected to the future (watch me dance, look). Then there was also something about the PP announcing ‘we will soon present a document negotiated with all the leaders of the PP, a proposal to improve the regional and local funding in Spain.’ More bullshit. Then they whisked Rajoy off to Palencia for a presentation of the ‘European Year of Cultural Heritage’, and where he finally had the nerve to say: ‘Spain defends the success of the European project. Europe is a scenario of freedom, democracy and human rights that guarantees our progress and well-being.’ Oh, and the judge didn’t lock up the CUP politican, Mireia Boya, midweek – as planned? – as if to underline just how friendly the PP had really become …

But the charm offensive (if that’s what it was) didn’t last long. After 48 hours of trying to spread the PP gospel about all the good and nice things they were doing, especially to improve the quality of life for the Catalans, the harsh reality finally struck yet again: the Spanish government now intends to also use its direct rule in Catalonia to put an end to the current language system, and overturn Catalan as the first language.

Let’s just be very clear about all this: Rajoy’s government is attacking Catalonia, Catalans and now the Catalan language itself. I believe he is also doing it (or most of it) illegally. The simple summary is as follows: Rajoy refused any dialogue about any form of agreed Catalan vote or referendum – but it went ahead, regardless. Before that 1st October referendum, Rajoy’s government closed websites, searched printers, banned events, censored the media, raided institutions, threatened mayors and civic leaders, amongst many other actions. He dispatched his Spanish police and Civil Guard forces to brutally attack innocent voters on 1st October – at a cost of €87m – and he still failed to stop the vote. There have now been political prisoners in Spain, still without any trial, for over four months. Rajoy applied Article 155 to take control of Catalonia, called elections for 21st December – but because he doesn’t like the result, he has so far blocked any investiture of the man chosen (and democratically elected twice now) to be president … and he has also put pressure on Spain’s judicial system to support him on this. The right to even apply Article 155 in the first place was questionable in itself. The use of 155 does clearly not include overturning the current Catalan language system – a political and social battlefield for many years.

Instead of agreeing to the request of a meeting with the new Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Roger Torrent, to discuss a way through the investiture minefield, Rajoy instead met with two other (and somewhat obscure) Catalan groups that both advocate bilingual education. Following on from that meeting, at a press conference on Friday, Spain’s education minister and government spokesman, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, said that Madrid intends to guarantee ‘the right of parents to choose the schooling language for their children’ – but he failed to clarify how. Right now, Catalan is the normal language in Catalan schools, with 2 or 3 hours a week of Spanish lessons. In all my time I have lived and worked in Barcelona and Catalonia, I have never, ever met any Catalan child or adult who cannot also speak perfect Spanish, too – and they’re always happy to converse with me in either language. They’re all bilingual. Many are even trilingual (and more), with excellent English, too. Why change it?

Please bear in mind these two headlines of articles published in the past 24 hours: ‘Madrid seeks to overturn Catalan as first language’ from The Times. ‘Madrid’s plan to push Spanish language in Catalan schools prompts independence anger’ from The Daily Telegraph. Both these respected newspapers included in their reports the following reminders: ‘During General Franco’s long rule between 1939-1975, speaking Catalan and Basque was banned’ (The Times); ‘Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Castilian was declared Spain’s only official language, while Catalan and other languages were severely repressed’ (The Daily Telegraph).

Fact: Franco suppressed the Catalan language. I’m sorry to be so blunt about this but that’s the PP for you, too. They’ve attacked Catalonia, they’ve attacked the Catalans, and now they’re also trying to use 155 to attack the Catalan language. Their ‘connected to the future’ hashtag this week is a joke; they live in the past. The current Spanish central government’s policies are not ‘improving the quality of life for the Catalans’ one bit – it is a total lie. And which is why the Catalans wanted an agreed and legal vote about independence in the first place. You can’t blame them.

Un observador inglés (6) – Define ‘normal’, M.Rajoy.

Speaking at an economic forum in Madrid this week, Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said that the Catalan Parliament must appoint a ‘normal’ president. It echoes the comments of a man called Xavier García Albiol, who, at the end of November last year, said that he’d like to close the Catalan broadcaster, TV3, and re-open it with ‘normal’ people to make it more ‘plural’. I write ‘a man called’ Albiol because that’s what he is – he’s a man. Okay, he’s a tall man. He’d like to think of himself as more than just a tall man – perhaps a tall politician, too (tall and ‘normal’, obviously). It’s true he was the tall mayor of Badalona (north east of Barcelona), and he’s the tall president of Rajoy’s PP party in Catalonia – but they were an absolute disaster in the 21st December elections. Other than being a tall man, his Wikipedia entry states that ‘thanks to his height, he [also] played basketball’. I mention all this because Mr Albiol took it upon himself to criticise the experience and qualifications of another possible candidate for the presidency of the Catalan government this week: Elsa Artadi. She actually has a very impressive CV. She graduated in economics from Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, and then completed a master’s before receiving a doctorate from Harvard University. She’s lectured at universities in Milan and China, was a member of the World Bank, and has also been a consultant for the same organisation in Washington and a member of the European Economic Association. She entered politics in 2011 and is now an MP and spokeswoman for the JxCat party (Together for Catalonia). She’s 41 and shorter than Albiol. The man whose (only?) qualifications make him tall enough to play basketball has scorned her credentials and experience, regarding them as too low to lead the Catalan government. Not that she wants to, anyway. 

Let’s get back to Rajoy’s desire for a ‘normal’ Catalan president. What does he mean by that? What is normal for Rajoy? He tried to clarify his comments by saying he wanted a ‘normal’ Catalan president invested using the ‘normal’ procedure – someone ‘who can be present at their investiture, and govern and debate with the opposition’. But that’s exactly what Carles Puigdemont wants to do, no? He wants to be present at his own investiture, without fear or threat of arrest. So I don’t believe that Rajoy’s definition of ‘normal’ is as simple as that.

A Spanish government spokesman, Pablo Casado, tried to further clarify ‘normal’. Casado is the Sean Spicer of the PP. That’s not a compliment. He’s continuously making gaffes on behalf of his party. His most famous crass comment was made in October last year, when he said Puigdemont might ‘end up like Lluis Companys’. Companys declared independence in 1934, was imprisoned for two years, and was later tortured and executed by Franco’s police in 1940 (after being captured in France and returned to Spain by the Nazis). Casado later said his comments referred to the 1934 imprisonment and not the 1940 execution (oh, thanks, Pablo), but the damage was already done. Politicians resign for much less in other countries, but not in Spain. Never in Spain.

Anyway, this week Casado tweeted that Rajoy’s desire for a ‘normal president’ really means a president that is ‘neither in prison, nor abroad, nor in criminal proceedings’ – and that ‘Catalonia cannot be hostage to the follies of one person’. But that doesn’t make sense, either. It is the PP itself instigating the imprisonments and criminal proceedings, because we all now know there’s no separation of powers in Spain. Yes, we do. We all know there’s an ‘unjust’ justice system in Spain (and some of it is to cover up the PP’s own corruption scandals). We all know that those in prison shouldn’t be there – even Amnesty International have finally said so (and the UN will surely follow). Those abroad shouldn’t have to remain abroad, either. Nor should there be any criminal proceedings based on anyone’s political ideology. As for Catalonia being ‘hostage to the follies of one person’ – that’s just pure nonsense. Is he saying that over 2m people in Catalonia are ‘abnormal’? Yes, in a sense, he is.

The definition of normal is ‘conforming to a standard; usual, typical or expected’. ‘Abnormal’ is deviating from what is ‘normal’, and ‘typically in a way that is undesirable or worrying’. It is clearly not ‘normal’ that the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Roger Torrent, has had to visit political prisoners this week, whilst trying to organise an investiture of the Catalan presidency. It is not normal to stop people voting. It is not normal to have refused political dialogue and to have not agreed some kind of legal vote or token referendum several years ago – and which would have resolved the Catalan issue, there and then, perhaps once and for all. It is not normal to order a nation’s police forces to brutally attack its own citizens. It is not normal to spend €87m failing to stop the referendum from taking place in the first place. Rajoy’s government has gone from searching the car boot of a printer’s cleaner for ballot papers in September last year, to now searching car boots for Puigdemont. That is not normal. It is also pathetic.

Rajoy’s government can’t justify the term ‘normal president’ by defining it as a president ‘who can be present at their own investiture’, or by a president who is ‘neither in prison, nor abroad, nor in criminal proceedings’. The real definition of ‘normal’ for Rajoy and the PP is someone who thinks like Rajoy and the PP. Despite they calling the elections on 21 December in Catalonia, they won’t now accept the result. It is undemocratic and a disgrace. I repeat: what’s not normal is that this Catalan issue has not yet been resolved by political dialogue, all because of the on-going incompetence and inflexibility of the Spanish government. The only way it will ever be resolved is through dialogue, but I believe it will now need international mediators.

El Punt-Avui TV (12) – Clowns, car mechanics, Human Rights.

On Thursday 8th February, I was invited back on ‘The English Hour’ again on El Punt-Avui TV, a local Barcelona TV channel, hosted by Matthew Tree, alongside two other guests, Miquel Strubell and Roxanne Huguet. Here’s the link to the full programme: El Punt-Avui TV (12).

Here are some links to previous appearances on the same show:

El Punt-Avui TV (11)

El Punt-Avui TV (10)

El Punt-Avui TV (9)

El Punt-Avui TV (8)

El Punt-Avui TV (7)

El Punt-Avui TV (6)

El Punt-Avui TV (5)

El Punt-Avui TV (4)

El Punt-Avui TV (3)

El Punt-Avui TV (2)

El Punt-Avui TV (1)