MADRID — Spain’s government on Tuesday approved pardons to a group of separatists serving long prison sentences for their involvement in a failed attempt to form a breakaway state in the northeastern region of Catalonia, a major olive branch in a conflict that has long divided the country.
The pardons, approved by the Spanish cabinet and announced at a news conference, made good on recent promises by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to reconcile with a separatist movement that in 2017 rocked Spain with an independence referendum. Spain’s courts declared the vote illegal and the government ordered a crackdown, confiscating ballots and even sending in riot squads to beat many who tried to vote.
Officials also ordered wide-ranging arrests, including those of the nine politicians and independence activists, who were originally given sentences between nine and 13 years, on charges that included sedition and misuse of public funds. The prisoners were jailed about three and a half years ago.
In an announcement from the prime minister’s palace, Mr. Sánchez offered a conciliatory tone that signaled a shift from past confrontational stances by the government against the prisoners. He said pardoning them was in the public interest.
“It’s best for Catalonia, it’s best for Spain,” he said.
The government did not offer complete pardons to the prisoners, however, maintaining bans on holding political office for a number of them who previously had been politicians.
Among those receiving clemency were Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy leader of Catalonia; Raül Romeva, who had been in charge of foreign affairs for the former Catalan government; Jordi Sànchez, who headed a pro-independence group; and Jordi Cuixart, the president of Omnium Cultural, a Barcelona-based cultural organization.
The pardons decision did not come without risks for Mr. Sánchez, leader of the Socialists, who has been fending off criticism that the party has been soft on the separatists, whom many Spanish regard as little more than lawbreakers. Separatists claim they are political prisoners.
After Mr. Sánchez began floating the idea of pardons more seriously this month, three major political parties — representing voters from Spain’s center, right and far right — demonstrated in Madrid, in a protest that drew an estimated 25,000 people.
Polls show most Spaniards oppose the pardons.
“The pardons are a prize for those who have destroyed families, those that have broken the law,” said Inés Arrimadas, a Catalan politician who heads the centrist Citizens political party and who led a group of protesters. “It’s a humiliation to those in Catalonia who continue to be loyal to the Constitution and follow the law.”
Ms. Arrimadas noted that until recently, Mr. Sánchez and members of his government maintained that the separatists needed to answer for their crimes, but that his party now needs support from Catalan nationalists to pass laws.
Many observers, however, point out that for a government looking to win hearts and minds in Catalonia, the timing could be favorable.
Mr. Sánchez’s Socialists won the most seats in a regional vote in Catalonia in February after years of trailing in elections. Pro-independence parties eventually formed a government without them, but rallied behind a moderate leader, Pere Aragonès, who is proposing a dialogue with Madrid rather than pushing for a renewed referendum.
Joaquim Coll, a historian and columnist in Barcelona, said that in the years since the 2017 referendum, the momentum of the independence movement has flagged throughout the region, meaning there may be little threat in releasing the prisoners.
“I think from the point of view of the state,” he said, “it’s a gesture that confirms the victory of the state — the gesture that the winner chooses to make.”
Mr. Coll also said that by releasing the prisoners, the government deprived more hard-line members of the independence movement of martyrs who could be used to push for more confrontation with Madrid. That gives more breathing room to moderates in Catalonia.
The jailings stem from a longstanding conflict over who should govern in Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that is home to Barcelona as well as a separate language and an independent culture.
After Spain’s courts in 2010 nullified much of a charter that was meant to grant the region more autonomous powers, a regional separatist movement began to gain momentum.
The 2017 referendum was held in the face of a court ruling that it was illegal. The separatists declared victory despite opinion polls showing the public divided on the issue, and Catalonia’s government declared independence — only to suspend the measure and be dissolved by the Spanish government in the crackdown.
The next showdown came in the trial of the independence leaders, which dominated the news for months. In 2019, Spain’s Supreme Court gave the group prison sentences of up to 13 years for crimes that included sedition and misuse of public funds.
The long prison sentences stunned many human rights observers, including Amnesty International, which said jailed separatists amounted to political prisoners in the heart of Europe.
Reactions to the pardons were mixed among some members of the independence movement.
“On a personal note, them getting out of prison will make me happy,” said Adrià Alsina, a national secretary for the Catalan National Assembly, an independence group whose leader, Mr. Sànchez, was among those who received pardons. “But the whole process seems like an enormous bad joke.”
Mr. Alsina said that his goal was not pardons, but instead a declaration of amnesty by the Spanish government, a statement that the prisoners had not committed any crimes, and an agreement to allow a new independence referendum to decide Catalonia’s status.
Conservatives were also not pleased by the pardons, though for different reasons.
“This sends a confusing message to citizens about equity in justice,” said Trinidad Cornejo, who works as an economist in the capital, Madrid. “I’m not saying I’m against it in the future, but right now, no, because only a little time has passed and they’re not sorry.”
José Bautista contributed reporting.