the terrorist group ETA, which fought for decades for the independence of the northern Basque region.

“They aren’t political prisoners. These are politicians that have broken the law,” Ms. González Laya said in an interview.

“The question is, do you have in Spain the ability to express a different opinion? Answer: Yes. Do you have the right to unilaterally decide that you break up the country? No,” she added.

But David Bondia, an international law professor in Barcelona, said that the Spanish government was considering an overhaul that would weaken its sedition laws, something he sees as an admission that there had been a mistake in jailing the separatist leaders.

Mr. Cuixart’s case was even more problematic from a legal view. He was the head of a cultural group, yet his sedition trial was conducted under a legal framework reserved for politicians, Mr. Bondia said, raising due-process questions.

For Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the situation recalls the days of the Franco dictatorship, when political opponents lived in fear of persecution.

“For us, this has hit hard and brought us to the past,” he said.

Mr. Puigdemont, who is also wanted on sedition charges, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, where he serves in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was removed in March, allowing for him to be extradited.

approved by voters and the regional Parliament. The move brought widespread anger and separatist flags became common in the countryside.

Soon, Parliament was discussing a move to declare an independent state, long considered a pipe dream of radicals.

Mr. Cuixart, who by 2015 had become the president of Omnium, was sometimes conflicted that his group had also joined the independence push — it was a cultural organization after all, not a political one. But in the end, he said that not joining would have been standing on the wrong side of history.

The crucial day came for Mr. Cuixart on Sept. 20, 2017, when the Spanish police, trying to stop the independence referendum from taking place, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry building on suspicions that plans for the vote were being organized there. But a giant crowd surrounded the location.

Mr. Cuixart and a pro-independence leader, Jordi Sánchez, tried to mediate between the protesters and the police. They set up pathways through the crowd for officers to enter the building and made announcements that anyone considering violence was a “traitor.”

As the night wore on, Mr. Cuixart said that he had feared violent clashes. In a recording, he is seen on top of a vehicle calling for the crowd to disperse. Despite jeers from the protesters, most left and Mr. Cuixart said that he then went to bed.

The vote was held amid the crackdown the next month. But Mr. Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there were no consequences after he dodged a military draft as a young man. He thought he had little to fear this time around.

But then the charges came: sedition, one of the highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian charges for activity at a protest surprised even legal experts who said that the sedition laws — which cover crimes less serious than full-out rebellion — had been rarely used in a country.

“I had to look up what ‘sedition’ even was,” Mr. Cuixart said.

Mr. Cuixart now spends his days at the Lledoners prison, a penitentiary built for about 1,000 inmates, and home to convicted drug peddlers and murderers. He said he spends his afternoons meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who is against Catalan independence, said he felt little pity for Mr. Cuixart’s situation because the separatists brought it on themselves.

“I don’t forgive them because they’ve broken our society,” Mr. Cañas said, adding that the independence push still divided Spanish homes. “I have friends I no longer speak to over this.”

Mr. Cuixart, for his part, said he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it all over again, he said. It was Spain that needed to change, he said, not him.

“At some point, Spain is going to have to reflect and ask themselves, ‘What are they going to do with me?’” he said. “Eliminate me? They can’t.”

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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