“Let’s not forget there are two political prisoners in the women’s Prison of Alcalá Meco, even if almost nobody is talking about them”, urges the husband of the former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament
Gemma Aguilera (Sabadell) 1 May 2018
The Madrid men’s prison of Estremera has become a physical and perhaps even metaphorical symbol of the post-Franco political system and the Spanish government’s repression of the independence movement. This is where the Catalan government ministers Josep Rull, Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Oriol Junqueras and Joaquim Forn, five leading members of the Government of Carles Puigdemont, are imprisoned, and has echoes with the Soto del Real prison, where the activists Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart have been held since 16 October 2017. But Alcalá Meco is the forgotten prison. This is despite having two political prisoners, the former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament Carme Forcadell and the member of the Catalan government Dolors Bassa. Both are accused of rebellion, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years. They are also a symbol of the political persecution of an authoritarian state, but for some reason don’t get the limelight. The job of the Catalan Civil Rights Association, driven by the families of the prisoners and those in exile, is to channel support but also to raise the profile of all those being repressed.
In conversation with Bernat Pegueroles, the husband of Carme Forcadell. We’re in Sabadell, a stone’s throw from the family home. We’re in a park surrounded by hundreds of yellow ribbons and a mural on the wall that say ‘No Turning Back’. “I draw lots of strength when I see the large protests and the small acts in every corner of the country. Having so many people behind us is reassuring. In fact, it is key because it is what keeps us strong”, explains Bernat. But not every prisoner’s family feels the same level of supports. “Let’s not forget there are two political prisoners in the women’s Prison of Alcalá Meco, even if almost nobody is talking about them. I don’t know if it is because they are women or because the Catalan ministers in Estremera have a high political profile, but the reality is that Dolors and Carme are all too often forgotten”.
Not only has the imprisoning of his wife been a personal trauma for Bernat Pegueroles but he has also felt “compelled” to go into the political arena to “defend her”. It was when Carme Forcadell spent the night of 9 November 2017 in Alcalá Meco, and even more so on 23 March past when Supreme Court justice Pablo Llarena informed Carme Forcadell and twelve of her colleagues that they were being charged with rebellion and would be subject to preventive detention without bail, that politics moved centre stage for him. “Before that, politics were peripheral to my daily life, aside from acting as her driver and attending ANC [Catalan National Assembly] and Parliamentary events with her”, explains Bernat. But with all that has gone on, he feels that “in truth, this is not about politics, this is about the revenge and domination of Catalonia by Madrid. In that regard, nothing makes sense”.
And it is this reality of the “injustice of the Spanish justice system” that most disturbs the relatives of political prisoners. They all have a close family member who depends on them and have little choice to get on with day-to-day living. Going to work, looking after children or parents, the home… “Your whole life is thrown upside down “, explains Bernat. This is the first time in 45 years of being together with Carme Forcadell – he explains that although they are both from Xerta, the relationship didn’t blossom until they moved to Barcelona to study at the UAB -, that they have spent so long apart. “During the day I stay busy. Thankfully, we all have our own separate lives. I help my kids with the computer business and we dine together every day. Having the kids around is a life-saver, not to mention my eight-month old grandchild. Otherwise, I’d be really alone”, he said. But what is most upsetting is not knowing exactly when Carme Forcadell will leave Alcalá Meco: “The hardest thing is not knowing how long they will keep her locked up. They are in the hands of the judges, that at the moment seem out for revenge and are looking for submission and humiliation. If at the very least you had a release date, you can start counting down. You know when it will end. But this uncertainty and the impunity surrounding it are the hardest thing to bear”, acknowledges Bernat Pegueroles.
The fact that President Puigdemont has avoided the charge of rebellion gave some hope to the political prisoners, in that a guilty verdict for rebellion would find it harder to get past the European Court of Human Rights on appeal. But Bernat prefers not to spend too much time thinking about that: “I’m not optimistic. Had the decision of the court in Schleswig-Holstein in Germany had any real impact, they would have made some sort of gesture, right? On the contrary. This is revenge pure and simple. They won’t do that until they are forced to do so by a sentence of the court in Strasbourg”, he answers. In any case, he says that “it is better to think that it might last four or five years rather than thirty, but I repeat Carme has done nothing to deserve being in prison. She is there simply because a judge so decided purely on political and ideological grounds. In Spain, it seems that you don’t need to prove a crime, just lock them up”.
In any case, he believes that the statements by the Catalan ministers, the Jordis and Carme Forcadell to judge Llarena “don’t do much good”, because nobody listens to them. “Judge Llarena, just like the Spanish government, only wants to win and to humiliate. Regardless of the defence strategy, the outcome has been the same”, adds Bernat Pegueroles, when I asked him about the fact that some of Catalan ministers had opted to declare themselves political prisoners to the judge whereas others had taken a softer line and made shorter statements. “Carme hasn’t changed her strategy. It is clear that the ministers of PDeCAT [Catalan European Democratic Party] have been more confrontational than those of ERC [Republican Left of Catalonia]. PDeCAT has one legal team and ERC another, that has been less confrontational. I’m not saying better or worse. They are simply very different strategies. But for Llarena, they are the same”. He regrets that the only information they get on court diary is from the media in Madrid, “the voice of Llarena”, who hopes to hand down a judgement by Christmas. “I don’t want to think that they might get thirty years in prison but, in any case, I have no expectation that Spain will react if there are protests here or abroad. Our hope lies in the ECHR “.
Did she consider going into exile?
On 23 March 2018, it was announced that the Secretary General of ERC, Marta Rovira, was going into exile in Switzerland and would not be appearing before Judge Llarena. This was an option open to all the accused. So, did Carme Forcadell consider it? “Look, they all considered this at some point. But leaving isn’t easy. Leaving friends, family, parents, siblings, children… And with no option to return. It is crazy that you have to leave when you’ve done nothing wrong”, explains Bernat Pegueroles. He feels that “exile is a key move at European level, and in this regard Carles Puigdemont has managed to raise the profile of the conflict. If he comes back, if the President ends up in prison, the picture would be more complex. If they catch him they won’t forgive him and will lock him up in the deepest, darkest hole they can find, because it isn’t about justice, it is about revenge “, he adds.
The mobile phone is always in the pocket
Carme Forcadell i Dolors Bassa get up at 7:30 in the morning, queue up for breakfast and spend some time in the yard before lunch time. After that they go back into their cells between 14:30 and 17:00, and then a few more hours in the yard before supper time. Carme Forcadell has asked to do a ceramic, English, French and aerobics workshop. The 8 m2 cell they share for between 15 and 16 hours a day is more austere that that of their male counterparts in Estremera: two bunks, a toilet and a cement shelf. The television is the third member of the cell, along with the letters they receive and newspapers –El Punt Avui and ARA- that they get late, but a delay that is acceptable “because it allows them to contrast all that with what they hear on Spanish TV”, adds Bernat. He, like all family members of prisoners, also has a constant companion, his mobile phone. “You never know when she will call. She has to queue in the yard and it can be morning or evening. She gets ten five-minute calls a week, and if it goes to voicemail she loses the call. We only have time to talk about the important stuff. I write it down to not forget anything. Sometimes it cuts off before you can say bye”. These restrictions come on top of the hardship on the families of travelling 600 kilometres for a 40-minute visit each week through a glass. And nobody knows how long that will last.