THE first thing that struck me about meeting Carme Forcadell was her elegance and dignity in the unlikely surroundings of the Mas d’Enric prison.

The previous time we had met was last July at Westminster when, as President (Speaker) of the Catalan Parliament, she was an honoured guest meeting John Bercow, her equivalent, and being greeted by him from the chair of the Commons as she sat in the gallery to watch the opening of business.

Now the wear of months in jail, first outside Madrid, and now back home in Catalonia, are there to see.

She transferred to a jail outside Tarragona to be closer to her elderly mother but it means she is the only political prisoner there. It’s obvious she misses her colleagues. The seven males are at least together in Lledoners prison.

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Nevertheless she is quick to quote singer Gloria Gaynor, whose best-known hit was I Will Survive.

That brings a smile from the warder escorting us to the visiting room. It is obvious she is held in respect by the staff.

Forcadell explains that she is careful not to drink coffee, tea or Coke because she wants to sleep at night, not to lie awake worrying, adding she is playing a lot of sports and reads a lot, with family, friends and supporters plying her with books: “I am surviving because I must do it for the people. Because we did no crime.”

Yet here is a 61-year-old woman being held in a prison where she is confined to her cell for 16 hours a day.

This is a woman who has been convicted of no crime but is being held by the Spanish state awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and sedition – offences removed from the statute book in other Western European democracies – and who is expected to receive a 17-year sentence from politically-appointed judges, supporters of the right-wing Popular Party.

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In addition, Forcadell is charged with allowing a debate in the Catalan Parliament on independence, something the majority of its representatives had requested. She recalls Bercow’s concern over her predicament and tells us she has had words of support from the presiding officer of the Welsh Assembly, Elin Jones.

I reflect that no similar encouragement has been forthcoming from her Holyrood counterpart, Ken Macintosh.

As she recalls the events of last autumn, Forcadell becomes more animated.

“As President of the Parliament I had to fulfil my duty.

“I have committed no crime; the Spanish Constitutional Court cannot decide what the Catalan Parliament can debate and discuss.

“I had to uphold the sovereignty of the Catalan Parliament, elected by the Catalan people.”

She points out the Constitutional Court argues that passive resistance is violence, but the only violence witnessed in October last year came from the Spanish police as they stormed polling stations on the day of the independence referendum, seizing ballot boxes and attacking those who were simply trying to cast their vote.

Turning to the trial, which could begin next month in Madrid, Forcadell says: “I want it to start so I can show my innocence. We hope to show the evidence, the films of what happened last October, but we don’t know if it will be possible.”

And she has a message to all those who are concerned about democracy in Catalonia: “Speak about Catalonia, our situation.

“We are defending the democratic rights of the people. In my case because I defended the sovereignty of Parliament.

“It is important that when the trial starts we make it a public trial with lots of people watching.”

The defendants want international observers at the trial and a show of solidarity for them on the day the proceedings begin.

As we leave Forcadell, she to return to her cell, us to walk out into the winter sunshine, I struggled to hide my sadness that this dignified woman should be shut away from her family, friends and nation, because she champions democracy.

She has struggled to settle into prison life but she is determined because she knows she is right.

That isn’t easy.

She, and all the accused, expect a guilty verdict and to serve years in a Spanish prison, even if the European Court of Human Rights finally manages to order their freedom.

It is not Carme Forcadell who should be the accused but the Spanish state and judiciary.

Chris Bambery is a point of contact for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia and co-author, with National columnist George Kerevan, of Catalonia Reborn