Catalonia: threat to impose massive fines on ex-minister prompts outcry
Threats of massive fines against the economist and former Catalan finance minister Andreu Mas-Colell for his alleged role in Catalonia’s failed independence bid in 2017 have prompted international condemnation.
Mas-Colell, 76, who served as finance minister from 2010-16, is among 40 officials, including the former Catalan presidents Artur Mas and Carles Puigdemont, accused by a tribunal of illegally using €4.8m of public money between 2011 and 2017 to further the cause of independence.
In an open letter, 53 economists, including 33 Nobel laureates, wrote: “We are deeply worried by the news and the situation of Prof Andreu Mas-Colell, one of Spain’s best-known and respected economists, over the public accounts tribunal’s proceedings.”
Mas-Colell retired from political life in 2016 and was not part of the government led by Puigdemont that declared independence in 2017. The fines, which may run into millions of euros, are due to be announced on Tuesday.
The economist, who founded the prestigious Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and has been tipped for a Nobel prize, has not spoken in public about the case but his son, Alex Mas Silberstein, an economist at Princeton University, said his father could be ruined.
“In two weeks, my parents’ home, his pension and his bank account may be seized by state authorities, without due process,” he tweeted. “The claim is that the Catalan government used public funds to promote Catalan independence, and specifically the 2017 referendum, abroad. He seems to be targeted because he was responsible for implementing the budgets voted on by parliament.”
The public accounts tribunal oversees public spending, reports to parliament and has auditing and jurisdictional powers. In 2017, the tribunal embargoed the homes of former president Mas and three of his ministers in lieu of €5.3m allegedly spent organising an independence referendum in 2014.
Whatever Mas-Colell’s involvement, there is no question that successive Catalan governments have spent large sums in attempting to “internationalise” independence, despite the fact that less than half the population support the cause. This has included opening at least 16 “embassies” in Europe and the Americas.
The case risks undermining a call for “dialogue and understanding” by the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, made last week after he pardoned the nine Catalan politicians jailed for their part in the independence declaration.
As Mas-Colell has supported Catalan independence and has long claimed that Spain robs the region of its revenues, the move is likely to reinforce the widely held view in Catalonia that the Spanish judiciary is a political instrument and that Catalan nationalists are being punished for their ideas.
In an apparent effort to minimise the impact of the case, Sánchez said on Monday that any tribunal decision would not be final and could be appealed against in court.
Separately, the Spanish judiciary has also come under scrutiny from the United Nations rapporteur for adequate housing, who has taken an interest in a case going to trial in Barcelona on Monday in which the defendants face three years in prison for peacefully demonstrating against eviction and mobbing.
The UN requested a report from the Tenants’ Union, whose spokesperson, Jaime Palomera, is one of the three accused of threatening and coercive behaviour.
The others, Fran Ortega, 35, and Alpha Mikeliunas, 36, joined the union’s Staying Put campaign in 2018 after the landlord threatened to evict them from the flat they had occupied since 2010. The threat came after the pair complained about the state of the building, which was plagued with rats and termites and where the water had been declared undrinkable. The local authority has fined the landlord €180,000 for neglect and harassment.
The three were among dozens of people who mounted a protest outside a beauty parlour owned by the landlord, a member of a branch of the Fradera family, one of the 200 wealthiest in Spain.
In 2019, the landlord filed a suit claiming that the protestrs used coercion and intimidation to prevent employees at the beauty salon from going about their work. Palomera says the presiding judge has refused to accept video and oral evidence from journalists and two Catalan MPs showing that the protest was entirely peaceful.
“Under Spanish law, a landlord can evict a tenant without reason, but we believe that human rights transcend the law and that Alpha and Fran have the right to negotiate a reasonable rent,” Palomera told the Guardian.
“People in Barcelona have created a peaceful movement against property speculation which the landlords, who have always done as they pleased, don’t accept. That’s what this trial is about.”