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Five years after the failed secession push in Catalonia which landed him in jail, Oriol Junqueras remains convinced that defying Spain with a banned independence referendum was the right move.
But the former deputy head of the region says the separatist camp needs to rally more support if its dream of an independent Catalan state is to one day become a reality.
"We did what we had to do," the professor-turned-politician said during an interview with AFP when asked about the failed secession drive that came to a head in October 2017.
"I am deeply proud of all that we have done, of our commitment, of having been able to convene, organise and hold a referendum on self-determination," the 53-year-old added.
Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the October 1, 2017 referendum organised by Catalonia's separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.
Based on the results of this vote -- which were never independently corroborated -- the Catalan parliament declared independence on October 27.
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Spanish authorities responded by sacking the Catalan government and pressed charges against the region's leaders who either fled abroad or were jailed like Junqueras.
Today the separatist movement is deeply divided over the path forward and Catalonia's ruling pro-independence coalition is on the point of collapse.
While Junqueras's ERC party favours dialogue with Madrid, its junior coalition partners, the JxC of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has taken a more confrontational approach.
Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself also remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.
In an October 2017 poll support for independence in the wealthy northeastern region of Spain stood at 49 percent.
"What we must do today, is be democratically stronger" in the face of the "repressive" Spanish state, said Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence and father-of-two who also served as Catalonia's economy minister.
The "main mistake" of the separatist camp in 2017 was that it did not "talk more with people, convince more people" to back the cause, he added.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's government last year pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were serving lengthy jail terms for their roles in the ill-fated independence bid.
Junqueras was in 2019 sentenced to 13 years behind bars, the longest term among the nine pardoned leaders. He spent over three years in prison before his pardon.
As Catalonia's former vice president Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds after the unauthorised 2017 referendum which led to Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
'Made us stronger'
Puigdemont, who was the head of Catalonia's government at the time of the referendum, evaded arrest by fleeing to Belgium after Catalonia's short-lived declaration of independence.
"I was convinced that my obligation was to be as close as possible to my citizens, at the same time I understand perfectly that other people opted for exile," Junqueras said.
"The fact that we have been in jail has only made us stronger in every way," he added.
"It has also opened many doors in the international community that were more difficult to open previously, so in this sense the time in prison has also been a very profitable investment."
He cited as an example an August finding from the UN's Human Rights Committee which concluded Spain had violated the political rights of Catalan politicians including Junqueras.
The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from office before having been convicted.
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