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Pardoned Catalan pro-independence leaders leave prison in Spain

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By Euronews with agencies
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The released Catalan leaders hold a banner and a Catalan pro-independence flag outside Lledoners prison in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada.
The released Catalan leaders hold a banner and a Catalan pro-independence flag outside Lledoners prison in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Joan Mateu
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Nine Catalan pro-independence leaders have walked out of prison after being pardoned by the Spanish government.

The separatists had been serving sentences for organising a bid to make Catalonia an independent republic in 2017. They had spent between three-and-a-half and four years behind bars.

But they were released on Wednesday after a Supreme Court order and were met by cheers from their supporters and relatives.

The nine released figures include the former vice-president of the Catalan regional government, Oriol Junqueras, five fellow Cabinet members, the former regional parliament's speaker, and two pro-independence activists.

Junqueras left the Lledoners prison in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada carrying a banner with the slogan "Freedom for Catalonia" and a pro-independence flag.

"We are aware that today, with our release from prison, nothing has ended," Junqueras told supporters in a defiant speech, "prison does not scare us, it reinforces our ideas."

"We will achieve Catalonia's independence and we will win," added Josep Rull, a former Catalan government official.

The Catalan regional president, Pere Aragones, and the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Laura Borras, also went to the prison for the separatists' release.

Spain's Cabinet had pardoned the separatists on Tuesday in an effort to reconcile relations in the country's restive northeastern region.

The pardon ended the Catalan leaders' prison sentences for sedition and misuse of public funds linked to the 2017 banned independence referendum.

But the government decree means that the former prisoners will not be able to hold public office until the end of their original sentences -- which range from nine to 13 years -- and they will return to prison if they break Spanish law again.

The pardons have provoked strong opposition from right-wing and far-right parties in Spain. Conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado has called for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to resign for issuing the pardons without consulting lawmakers.

Sanchez has responded by saying the decision to issue pardons was "brave, restorative and in favour of coexistence." Madrid has still ruled out allowing a legal referendum on Catalonia's independence.