Spain approves Catalan amnesty bill set to define PM's term

By Joan Faus

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain's Congress on Thursday overturned an upper house veto with its final approval of a disputed amnesty for Catalan separatists that is expected to set the stage for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's second term and allow the return of an exiled pro-independence leader.

The bill, approved by 177-172 votes, will become law once it is published in the official gazette as early as Friday. Courts will then have up to two months to apply the law, expected to annul the legal records of hundreds of officials and activists involved in Catalonia's separatist push since 2011.

The bill has caused large protests over the past few months, enraging some judges and the conservative opposition, which plans to challenge it in courts.

In a survey by El Mundo newspaper in March, 62% of respondents across Spain rejected the amnesty, but in the Catalonia region alone most voters - 48% - supported it.

Sanchez put forward the amnesty proposal last year in exchange for support in parliament from two Catalan separatist parties - Junts and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya - for him to stay on as premier after an inconclusive election.

He has argued amnesty will bring reconciliation with the northeastern region seven years after its illegal referendum and unilateral declaration of independence set off Spain's worst political crisis in over 30 years.

"Today is a historic day. Nothing is forgiven, instead a battle is won in the centuries-long conflict between the Catalan and Spanish nations," said Junts' lawmaker Miriam Nogueras in a heated parliamentary debate.

Sanchez's approach was largely vindicated earlier this month when his Socialist Party won Catalonia's regional election and separatists lost their long-running parliamentary majority.

The Socialists hope the amnesty will help cement their alliance with the small parties they rely on to pass legislation in the national parliament.

Junts' leader Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after spearheading the failed independence bid in 2017, will be the amnesty's most high-profile beneficiary as the Spanish arrest warrant he faces over those events is expected to be lifted.

Puigdemont, who was the second most popular candidate in Catalonia's election, has said he will return to Spain the day parliament convenes to elect the new Catalan president but no date has been set yet as no party clinched an outright majority.

(Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Andrei Khalip and Giles Elgood)