Jailed Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia's pragmatist professor

Barcelona (AFP) –


An inscrutable pragmatist with an affable nature, Oriol Junqueras is a key figure in the Catalan separatist movement who has taken the fall for a failed independence bid that sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

A professor-turned-politician, Junqueras was on Monday sentenced to 13 years behind bars for his role in the separatist push which included a secession referendum on October 1, 2017 that was banned by Madrid.

A lifelong supporter of Catalan independence, Junqueras has been propelled into the spotlight as a result of the trial, which saw him convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds.

As regional vice president at the time, Junqueras was the most senior figure of 12 defendants to be put on the stand after Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont fled abroad to avoid prosecution.

But this 50-year-old father-of-two chose to stay, and has since spent nearly two years behind bars in pre-trial detention.

Described in his own words as a "political prisoner" -- a claim fiercely contested by Spain -- Junqueras has come a long way since entering politics some 12 years ago.

"I am being prosecuted for my ideas and not for my actions," he told the court in February.

Despite being locked up, he has managed to retain his status within the movement and even win election to both the Spanish and the European parliaments.

- An early start -

Born in Barcelona on April 11, 1969 to a teacher father and a mother who was a nurse, Junqueras was educated at a religious Italian school.

Although he remains discreet about his childhood, he told Catalan daily La Vanguardia in 2012 that he began supporting independence when he was just eight.

A polyglot who speaks Spanish, Catalan, English and Italian, he once did some research at the Vatican and met the man who would later become pope Benedict XVI, his close friend Raul Murcia told AFP.

With a doctorate in history, he taught at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and first became known to the public by hosting history programmes on Catalan radio and television.

In 2007, he moved from university classroom to politics, serving as a local councillor, then becoming a European MP in 2009 and, two years later, being elected mayor of Sant Vicenc dels Horts, his hometown near Barcelona.

In the same year, he took over as head of the leftwing pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

At the time, the party was struggling with heavy electoral losses and riven with dissent, but within a few years, he had turned it into the leading pro-independence party in Catalonia.

And from prison, he has kept up his work, meeting senior political figures and steering the party on a moderate line favouring dialogue with Madrid, to appeal to those Catalans who oppose separation from Spain -- just over half of them.

"He has told us: I'm facing a very hard sentence but we must not give up our politics, we mustn't give up dialogue," said ERC lawmaker Gabriel Rufian.

"It might sound a bit over the top, but we have a Mandela."

- A friarly aspect -

Known for his affability and described as a "teddy bear" by Catalan socialist leader Miquel Iceta, Junqueras became the region's vice-president in January 2016 and was charged with organising the banned October referendum.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former member of his office described him as "very prudent, very rigorous".

A committed Catholic with an ample waistline and a neat beard, Junqueras has something of "a Franciscan appearance", according to Catalan writer Sergi Pamies.

And Enric Millo, Madrid's representative in Catalonia during the 2017 crisis, took the analogy further, saying he "talks really well, almost like a priest".

But he had another side to him, a "dual nature", Millo said: "All of a sudden, when it comes to act, he draws the knife," describing him as a person who was "ready to give everything".

Columnist Joaquim Coll said despite his "good-natured, almost clerical rhetoric", Junqueras was "a fundamentalist" when it came to independence, describing him as "not a very trustworthy person".

Although clearly a man who commands loyalty, Junqueras has a reputation for sidestepping difficult questions, and to many, he remains inscrutable -- even those in the dock with him.

"I still question who Oriol Junqueras really is," admitted co-defendant Santi Vila in his recently-published book, who himself was fined for his role in the 2017 succession bid.