Ripples from Catalan referendum could extend beyond Spain

Simon Tisdall writes: The Spanish government’s attempted suppression of Catalonia’s independence referendum by brute force has raised urgent questions for fellow EU members about Spain’s adherence to democratic norms, 42 years after the death of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, spoke for many in Europe when he tweeted: “Violence can never be the answer!”

Madrid’s pugnacious stance, while widely condemned as a gross and shameful over-reaction, has nevertheless sent a problematic message to would-be secessionists everywhere. It is that peaceful campaigns in line with the UN charter’s universal right to self-determination, campaigns that eschew violence and rely on conventional political means, are ultimately doomed to fail. In other words, violence is the only answer. Sorry, Charles.

Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, did everything he could to derail a referendum that the courts had deemed illegal, but his pleas and threats were not persuasive. That is democracy. Rajoy’s subsequent choice to employ physical force to impose his will on civilians exercising a basic democratic right carried a chill echo of Spain’s past and a dire warning for the future. That is dictatorship.

Surely no one believes the cause of Catalan independence will fade away after Sunday’s bloody confrontations that left hundreds injured. Rajoy’s actions may have ensured, on the contrary, that the campaign enters a new, more radical phase, potentially giving rise to ongoing clashes, reciprocal violence, and copycat protests elsewhere, for example among the left-behind population of economically deprived Galicia. [Continue reading…]

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Hundreds injured as riot police storm Catalan referendum polling stations

The Guardian reports: The Spanish government has defended its response to the Catalan independence referendum after more than 700 people were hurt when Spanish riot police stormed polling stations and seized ballot papers in a last-minute effort to stop the vote on Sunday.

Although many Catalans managed to cast their ballots in the poll, which the Spanish authorities have declared illegal, others were forcibly stopped from voting as schools housing ballot boxes were raided by police acting on the orders of the Catalan high court.

The large Ramon Llull school in central Barcelona was the scene of a sustained operation, with witnesses describing police using axes to smash the doors, charging the crowds and firing rubber bullets. [Continue reading…]

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Catalans defy Spain and vote on independence, clashing with police

The New York Times reports: Defying the Spanish authorities, tens of thousands of Catalans turned out to vote on Sunday in a banned independence referendum, clashing with police officers sent from outside the region to shut down polling stations and confiscate ballots.

The police in some places used rubber bullets and truncheons to disperse voters, many of whom had spent the night inside polling stations to ensure that they would remain open.

The police crackdown left 38 people wounded — nine of whom were hospitalized — by early afternoon, according to the Catalan emergency services. Madrid-based newspapers reported that 11 police officers had also suffered injuries.

Even as Spanish security forces intensified the clampdown, the Catalan authorities maintained that voting was proceeding in almost three-quarters of polling stations. [Continue reading…]

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In Barcelona, a heartening rejection of Islamophobia

The Washington Post reports: On Sunday, thousands of local Muslims marched down La Rambla, the scenic, tree-lined boulevard where the first of two coordinated attacks took place. Young and old, men and women, many of whom were veiled, the demonstrators chanted in unison: “I am Muslim! Not a terrorist!” Non-Muslims lined the sidewalks, clapping and crying. Some stepped forward to hug demonstrators as they passed.

At a Sunday news conference on the investigation, Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s regional president, grew most animated when he spoke in defense of the local Moroccan population. “The Moroccan people are integrated in Catalonia, and they have made important contributions to the community,” he said.

Some, especially in rural Catalonia, might have said otherwise. Home to the largest percentage of Spain’s Muslim population — about 25 percent — the region is also the locus of Islamist militant activity in the country. Roughly a quarter of those arrested on suspicion of radicalized tendencies between 2013 and 2016 were arrested in Barcelona and its environs, according to data released by the Real Instituto Elcano, a Madrid-based think tank.

Carola García-Calvo, a senior terrorism analyst at Elcano, said that part of the reason was that Barcelona has long been a receiving center for immigrants and one of the few places in Spain where the vulnerable group of second-generation immigrant youths has matured in a concentrated mass.

On Friday, less than 24 hours after the Las Ramblas attack, a small group of demonstrators from the far-right Falange movement — named for a fascist group active in 1930s Spain — protested what they called the “Islamicization of Europe.”

But that was far from a widespread sentiment. Thousands of counterprotesters ultimately turned out in response, drowning out the handful of rightists and forcing them to disband. [Continue reading…]

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How 12 young men from a small town secretly plotted the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in more than a decade

The Washington Post reports: The Spanish interior minister boasted Saturday that the terrorist cell that had carried out attacks in Barcelona and a nearby seaside village has been “completely dismantled.” But in the mountain town where the conspiracy was born, people wanted to know how it all had started.

At the center of the mystery here: How did a dozen young men from a small town — some friends since childhood — come together to plot in secret and carry out the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain in more than a decade, considering some were barely old enough to drive and most still lived with their parents.

As many as eight of 12 young men named as suspects in the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils are first- and second-generation Moroccan immigrants from the picturesque town of Ripoll, perched high in the forests at the edge of the Pyrenees, a two-hour drive on the highway from Barcelona.

Parents of the young men here told The Washington Post they fear their sons were radicalized by a visiting cleric who spent the last months praying, preaching — and possibly brainwashing gullible youngsters who spoke better Spanish than Arabic. [Continue reading…]

 

Christopher Dickey writes: According to the JTIC [Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre], Spanish police have arrested at least 20 suspects connected to the Islamic State. “Notably, 11 of the suspects detained in 2017 have been arrested in Catalonia, where the latest attack occurred,” the JTIC reports. “Of 38 counter-terrorism operations conducted in 2015 and 2016, 10 operations leading to the arrests of 24 suspected Islamist militants were conducted in Catalonia. Since the start of 2015, 43.2 percent of arrests targeting Islamist militants recorded by JTIC have taken place in Catalonia, highlighting it as a hub of Islamist activity in Spain.”

Yet, for all that, “the two attacks and the relatively large geographic dispersal between Barcelona and Cambrils, the involvement of a larger number of people [than in other attacks in Europe in 2016 and 2017] and the potential discovery of a site to prepare powerful explosives in Alcanar suggest a much higher level of coordination than has been typically present in previous attacks.”
Spain has been on its next-highest level of alert since 2015, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks early that year.

But the autonomous Catalan government has been pressing forward with plans for a highly contentious referendum on complete independence scheduled for October 1, and its secessionist sentiment, though by no means universal, may have had particular relevance to these attacks.

Hugo Micheron, a researcher who has interviewed scores of jihadis in French prisons and elsewhere, notes that those operating in Europe often see elections as key moments for their operations. “ISIS wants to destabilize the democratic process,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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When terror came to Barcelona

Miguel-Anxo Murado writes: With the blood of tourists shed in the streets of Barcelona, the Spanish and Catalan police forces are working together to tackle the common threat.

Perhaps inevitably, the bitter differences will re-emerge as the shock recedes. And yet, between now and then, the horror has opened a window through which we are able to catch a glimpse of our common humanity, of how frail it is, of how thin is the line that divides civility from barbarism.

Cityscapes are so embedded in the life of our nations that any major event that happens in them has inadvertent historical resonance and additional meaning. In Stockholm, the terrorist started his car in the street where Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minister who embodied an ideal of social cohesion, was assassinated many years before. In London, the attacker knifed his way right up to the gates of Parliament, the visible representation of democracy’s long history. And it was in Las Ramblas of Barcelona, standing guard on a rooftop as a volunteer during the Spanish Civil War, that the British writer George Orwell was struck by a realization that would ultimately lead him to write “1984,” his enduring denunciation of totalitarianism and the politics of fear.

On Thursday, the terrorists began killing people precisely on the spot of Orwell’s epiphany. By the time the vehicle had ran its course, it had left a half-mile trail of pain. Already, yesterday, that scar was covered with a tribute of flowers. It occurred to me that many of them may have come from the same kiosks hit by the van.

“If you can feel that staying human is worth while,” wrote Orwell, “even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.” [Continue reading…]

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‘Terror’ struck Barcelona, according to Trump. Charlottesville? ‘Call it whatever you want.’

Callum Borchers writes: Within hours of a vehicular attack in Barcelona that killed at least 13 and injured dozens of others on Thursday, President Trump called it “terror.”


Yet at a news conference three days after a similar episode in Charlottesville, where an alleged Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19, the president would not definitely assign the same label.

“Was this terrorism?” a journalist asked on Tuesday.

“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country,” Trump replied, “and that is — you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want.” [Continue reading…]

However each attack gets labelled, the more important question is how they are related since it’s hard to dismiss the temporal sequence as purely coincidental.

The reality is that an attack of this kind requires very little planning and thus the first attack could indeed have triggered the second. Moreover, the attacker in Barcelona would surely have been fully aware of the attack in Charlottesville and thus seen global media attention as ripe for the picking through an escalation of violence.

Was the latest attack conceived as a way of mocking (and goading) American Islamophobic terrorists — as if to say, your brutality is no match of ours?

Was it intended to highlight Trump’s hypocrisy in his responses to violent attacks?

What seems least likely is the possibility that Charlottesville was nowhere within the considerations of the perpetrator(s) of today’s deadly attack in Barcelona.

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Spain drops plan to impose veto if Scotland tries to join EU

The Guardian reports: Spain has said it would not veto an attempt by an independent Scotland to join the EU, in a boost to Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign for a second independence referendum and the clearest sign yet that Brexit has softened Madrid’s longstanding opposition.

Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish foreign minister, made it clear that the government would not block an independent Scotland’s EU hopes, although he stressed that Madrid would not welcome the disintegration of the UK.

He also said Edinburgh would have to apply for membership, a process fraught with uncertainty that is likely to take several years. But asked directly whether Spain would veto an independent Scotland joining the EU, Dastis said: “No, we wouldn’t.”

Madrid is keen not to fuel Catalonia’s desire for independence. “We don’t want it [Scottish independence] to happen,” he said. “But if it happens legally and constitutionally, we would not block it. We don’t encourage the breakup of any member states, because we think the future goes in a different direction.”

The change in tone could prove a significant boon to Scotland’s first minister, who has repeatedly demanded the right from Westminster to hold a second independence referendum before Brexit. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU during the referendum last year, but it has been believed Spain would block it from rejoining if independent from the UK. [Continue reading…]

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Anger as Spain prepares to let Russian warships refuel on way back to Aleppo bombing

The Guardian reports: Spain is facing criticism for reportedly preparing to allow the refuelling of Russian warships en route to bolstering the bombing campaign against the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Warships led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov are expected to take on fuel and supplies at the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning.

Spanish media reported that two Spanish vessels, the frigate Almirante Juan de Borbón and logistical ship Cantabria, were shadowing the warships as they passed through international waters, and that the Admiral Kuznetsov, along with other Russian vessels and submarines, would dock at Ceuta to restock after 10 days at sea. [Continue reading…]

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Spain issues warrants for top Russian officials, Putin insiders

RFE/RL reports: A Spanish judge has issued international arrest warrants for several current and former Russian government officials and other political figures closely linked to President Vladimir Putin.

The named Russians include a former prime minister and an ex-defense minister, as well as a current deputy prime minister and the current head of the lower house of parliament’s finance committee.

The Spanish documents detail alleged members of two of Russia’s largest and best-known criminal organizations — the Tambov and Malyshev gangs — in connection with crimes committed in Spain including murder, weapons and drug trafficking, extortion, and money laundering.

But Spanish police also conclude that one of the gangs was able to penetrate Russian ministries, security forces, and other key government institutions and businesses with the help of an influential senior legislator. [Continue reading…]

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Putin allies aided Russian mafia in Spain, prosecutors say

Bloomberg reports: Some of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, including the chairman of OAO Gazprom, a deputy premier and two former ministers, helped one of Russia’s largest criminal groups operate out of Spain for more than a decade, prosecutors in Madrid say.

Members of St. Petersburg’s Tambov crime syndicate moved into Spain in 1996, when Putin was deputy mayor of the former czarist capital, to launder proceeds from their illicit activities, Juan Carrau and Jose Grinda wrote in a petition to the Central Court on May 29, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News.

The 488-page complaint, the product of a decade of investigations into the spread of Russian organized crime during the Putin era, portrays links between the criminal enterprise and top law-enforcement officials and policy makers in Moscow. The petition, based on thousands of wiretaps, bank transfers and property transactions, is a formal request to charge 27 people with money laundering, fraud and other crimes. Approval by a judge would clear the way for a trial, but Spain doesn’t try people in absentia. [Continue reading…]

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Why Ernesto Laclau is the intellectual figurehead for Syriza and Podemos

Dan Hancox writes: When Ernesto Laclau passed away last April aged 78, few would have guessed that this Argentinian-born, Oxford-educated post-Marxist would become the key intellectual figure behind a political process that exploded into life a mere six weeks later, when Spanish leftist party Podemos won five seats and 1.2m votes in last May’s European elections.

Throughout his academic career, most of which he spent as professor of political theory at the University of Essex, Laclau developed a vocabulary beyond classical Marxist thought, replacing the traditional analysis of class struggle with a concept of “radical democracy” that stretched beyond the narrow confines of the ballot box (or the trade union). Most importantly for Syriza, Podemos and its excitable sympathisers outside Greece and Spain, he sought to rescue “populism” from its many detractors.

Íñigo Errejón, one of Podemos’s key strategists, completed his 2011 doctorate on recent Bolivian populism, taking substantial inspiration from Laclau and his wife and collaborator Chantal Mouffe, as he explains in this obituary. To read Errejón on Laclau is to take an exhilarating short-cut to understanding the intellectual forces that are shaping Europe’s future. Syriza’s victory in Greece, for one, has been directly driven by the ideas of Laclau and an Essex cohort that includes among its alumni a Syriza MP, the governor of Athens, and Yanis Varoufakis. Syriza built its political coalition in exactly the way Laclau prescribed in his key 2005 book On Populist Reason – as Essex professor David Howarth puts it, “binding together different demands by focusing on their opposition to a common enemy”.

On the Mediterranean side of austerity Europe, the common enemy is not hard to discern. During Spain’s massive indignados protests and encampments of summer 2011, one of the principal slogans was the quintessentially populist “We are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top”. It is, in Laclau’s terms, “the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier” like this, between a broadly defined sense of “the people” and a ruling class unwilling to yield to their demands, that readies the ground for a populist movement like Podemos.[Continue reading…]

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Greece has voted for a new politics, not just a new party

Yiannis Baboulias writes: Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, anyone familiar with the Greek nation and its politics would have been surprised by the events of Sunday night. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras addressed a crowd of thousands who had gathered in central Athens to celebrate his party’s general election victory. The new Greek Prime Minister—state educated, young and not related to previous prime ministers—is unlike any of his predecessors. His party is a coalition of the radical left, that was born as a fringe party six years ago.

“The Greek people gave us a clear, indisputable mandate to end austerity,” said Tsipras. But despite the fact Syriza is the outright winner, it didn’t quite manage to get the seats it needed to form a majority government (increasing its share of the vote from 4.6 per cent in 2009, to more than 36 per cent now.) Yesterday we learned that it would form a coalition with the populist right, anti-austerity party Independent Greeks.

Analysts rightly point out that the parties will be uneasy bedfellows. Syriza comes from a breakaway faction of the traditional communist party, and is itself a coalition of smaller entities that range from the centre-left to anarchism. The Independent Greeks on the other hand broke away from the centre-right party New Democracy when it signed up to austerity after its election in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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Fortress Europe and the migrants risking their lives to find refuge

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Spain jails four accused of recruiting women for ISIS

Vice News reports: Three women and a man, accused of recruiting young women for the Islamic State through social media and WhatsApp forums, were sent to prison by a Spanish judge on Thursday. They were allegedly part of a jihadist network that has managed to send 12 women to join the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.

Spanish National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz “ordered unconditional detention for membership in a terrorist organisation,” according to a judicial source.

Police arrested seven suspects this week — four people in Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish territories in northern Africa, a Chilean woman in Barcelona, and two men in the Moroccan town of Castillejos. Two women arrested in Barcelona and Ceuta were apparently about to travel to the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Spain warns U.S. of breakdown in trust after new NSA revelations

The Guardian reports: The Spanish government has warned the US that revelations of widespread spying by the National Security Agency could, if confirmed, “lead to a breakdown in the traditional trust” between the two countries.

The diplomatic row followed a report in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper on Monday, based on a leaked NSA document, claiming that the US had intercepted 60.5m phone calls in Spain between 10 December 2012 and 8 January this year.

In the latest revelations from the documents leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, El Mundo published an NSA graphic, entitled “Spain – last 30 days”, showing the daily flow of phone calls within Spain. On one day alone – 11 December 2012 – the NSA reportedly intercepted more than 3.5m phone calls. It appears that although the content of the calls was not monitored the serial and phone numbers of the handsets used, the locations, sim cards and the duration of the calls were. Emails and other social media were also monitored.

The White House has so far declined to comment on the El Mundo report. Spain, however, expressed its concern. José Manuel García Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, warned of a breakdown in trust between Madrid and Washington at a press conference in Warsaw, where he was on an official visit. [Continue reading…]

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Sephardic Jews invited back to Spain after 500 years

BBC News reports: More than 500 years ago, tens of thousands of Jews fled Spain because of persecution. Now their descendants are being invited to return.

Before the infamous Spanish Inquisition of the 15th Century, some 300,000 Jews lived in Spain. It was one of the largest communities of Jews in the world.

Today, there are about 40,000 or 50,000 – but that number could be about to swell dramatically.

In November, Spain’s justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced a plan to give descendants of Spain’s original Jewish community – known as Sephardic Jews – a fast-track to a Spanish passport and Spanish citizenship.

“In the long journey Spain has undertaken to rediscover a part of itself, few occasions are as moving as today,” he said.

Anyone who could prove their Spanish Jewish origins, he said, would be given Spanish nationality. [Continue reading…]

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Austerity is making Spain’s ‘pact of silence’ fall apart

Paul Mason writes: “Independence for Catalonia? Over my dead body… and those of many soldiers.” That was how Francisco Alaman reacted to the 1.5 million strong demonstration in Barcelona last month, with many calling for independence for the region.

It’s a view. Quite strongly held not just on the right in Spain but on the centre left. However Alaman is a serving soldier: a colonel. And it wasn’t the only incendiary thing he said.

In the week tens of thousands of protesters surrounded parliament, he told the website Alerta Digital:

“The current situation is very similar to 1936, but without blood. Unfortunately, the data indicate that the situation will only get worse in the coming months and years.”

Economics journalists have learned, (thanks to the work of the FT’s Gillian Tett), to ask a very brutal and searching question as we parachute into the latest theatre of crisis: look for the social silence. What is staring you in the face but nobody wants to talk about it?

Well Colonel Alaman has answered it.

During the early years of Spanish democracy, forgetting about the Civil War (1936-39) was not just a psychological necessity – it was a political choice.

The “pact of silence” instituted after the fall of General Franco was seen as a price worth paying for rapid, peaceful transition to a functioning democracy – a democracy that, moreover, found space to accommodate a strong, previously clandestine Communist Party alongside the rapidly moderating socialists of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party).

The approach was codified into law, with the 1977 Amnesty Law guaranteeing a blanket immunity from prosecution for those suspected of crimes against humanity during the Franco era and the Civil War.

With Spain now reeling from austerity, its riot police dispensing truncheon blows and rubber bullets against demonstrators and passers-by, the “pact of silence” is falling apart. [Continue reading…]

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