The Real Leader of Catalan Separatist Push Is Packing for Prison

  • Head of separatist campaign group to testify in National Court
  • Sanchez’s group was the backbone of the referendum operation

Jordi Sanchez is booked on a train home from Madrid tonight, but he’s packing underwear for four days all the same.

As one of the architects of Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence, Sanchez is worried that he might be spending the weekend in jail after facing interrogation in the National Court Friday. Judges are weighing up possible sedition charges against the 53-year-old father of three. He could face up to 15 years behind bars if he’s ultimately convicted.

Jordi Sanchez

Photographer: Susanna Saez/EPA

“There’s that question mark over whether you’ll make it home again,” he said in an interview in Barcelona on Thursday night before catching the train to the Spanish capital. “I chose this path. But my wife, my kids, my parents -- they didn’t and they are suffering. That’s the most uncomfortable part.”

Read more: How Catalonia’s Bloody Breakaway Bid Divides Spain: QuickTake

As head of the biggest pro-independence campaign group, Sanchez is part of the inner circle of the separatist movement with Regional President Carles Puigdemont and Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the regional parliament, among others.

Operating with a core group of about 30, including both staffers and those elected by the members, Sanchez is aiming to break the Catalan territory free of control from Madrid for the first time in centuries.

Sanchez cut his teeth as a teenage activist staging propaganda stunts. One time they stole a Spanish flag from the Catalan government headquarters and then returned it two days later with a note asking the regional president to hand it back to King Juan Carlos when he visited.

The separatist campaign is organized with a similar sense of theater. When the Catalan Parliament approved its referendum law using an improvised emergency procedure on Sept. 6, Sanchez had rehearsed with the speaker, Forcadell, to ensure the debate was conducted with as much gravitas as possible.

The Ground Game

With 40,000 paying members and local branches in almost 500 municipalities, Sanchez’s organization, the Catalan National Assembly, has an unparalleled capability to mobilize activists across the region, whether in a lightning response to police actions or mass demonstrations.

In 2014, they brought almost 2 million people onto the streets of Barcelona for their National Day demonstration, according to the local police.

That network of activists was the backbone of the operation that managed to outwit the Spanish police to hold Sunday’s ballot.

Those plans were thrown into doubt on Sept. 20 when Spain’s Civil Guard raided regional government offices and arrested at least 12 officials. Sanchez led the protest that quickly coalesced outside the regional economy department, keeping the Spanish law enforcement officials trapped inside for hours as their cars were vandalized. That prompted the probe that will see Sanchez in court Friday.

‘Film the Police’

Nevertheless, the movement managed to set up more than 2,000 polling stations across the region last Saturday, assigning teams to sleep overnight alongside the ballot boxes to obstruct any police crackdown. Just before midnight, Sanchez sent a tweet to his supporters.

Police officers drag a pro Catalan referendum supporters along a road in Sabadell, Spain, on Oct. 1.

Photographer: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

“Remember to film the Spanish police action and send it around,” he wrote. “Their violence is their defeat.”

Even so, he says he felt sick at the images of Spanish police beating voters with batons and firing rubber bullets into the crowds. Watching with Puigdemont and other members of the government, he says they considered calling off the vote because of the danger to their supporters.

Now, even as he prepares his legal strategy before facing magistrates in Madrid, Sanchez is looking ahead to another potential showdown with the Spanish state.

Catalan leaders are said to be divided on the issue of proceeding with their independence push. Maria Tadeo reports

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The Catalan Parliament plans to convene Monday to decide how to act on the referendum result -- a unilateral declaration of independence is one option -- while the Constitutional Court has barred the legislature from meeting.

Sanchez says that lawmakers are determined to hold their debate come what may. That would leave Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to decide whether to send in the police to enforce the law, a move that backfired spectacularly on Sunday.

“The state is in check,” Sanchez said. “This could have a reasonable, democratic solution or a violent one. We want to negotiate a peaceful solution, but it’s not clear the Spanish state wants that.”

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