NINE pro-independence Catalan leaders jailed for their roles in the 2017 referendum have been pardoned by the Spanish government and released from prison.

After three and a half years behind bars, the group of politicians and activists will walk free. However the pardons will not cover former president Carles Puidgemont and others who fled Spain after the vote.

Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez announced his plans for the future on Monday, explaining that pardoning the prisoners will “materially get nine people out of prison” and “symbolically add millions and millions of people to co-existence”.

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The right-wing opposition parties have opposed the move, accusing Sanchez, who leads a minority government, of using the pardons as a way to secure backing from Catalan parties.

Pere Aragones, Catalonia’s president, welcomed the pardons – saying they will help “create credibility towards the right path – a path of negotiation and agreement towards solving the conflict”.

Pictures showed a number of the prisoners, including former vice-president Oriol Junqueras who had been sentenced to 13 years, leaving jail this morning.

Omnium Cultural, the organisation which promotes the Catalan language and culture, shared a picture of seven of the prisoners holding the Estelada flag and a banner reading “Freedom for Catalonia!”

The body wrote: “After more than 3 and a half years of unjust imprisonment, they are leaving today to continue fighting for amnesty, self-determination and the Catalan Republic!”

Speaking to supporters outside the Lledoners prison, released cultural activist Jordi Cuixart said: "The first of the memories is for President Puigdemont, Marta Rovira, Toni Comín, Clara Ponsatí, Anna Gabriel and everyone who suffers repression.

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"Today is not a day of resignation, it is a day that Catalans reaffirm to continue fighting and not leave anyone behind, repression has not overcome us and will not defeat us.

“There is no pardon that will silence the people of Catalonia. We have not been silenced and we will never be silent!”

Speaking to The National yesterday, Scottish lawyer Aamer Anwar who represents Catalan exile Clara Ponsati described the pardons as a “trap”.

Anwar said the Spanish move would set the independence movement in Catalonia back for “many years”.

He said: “The pardons are a convenient tool for the Spanish to try and divide the independence movement – after all, the exiles including Clara and President Puigdemont who have been most effective weapons in highlighting the Catalan cause internationally are not even mentioned. They still remain exiles.

“People should be asking why the 3000 Catalans who faced charges over the independence referendum are being ignored.

“The independence movement sleepwalked into a trap by becoming fixated on the plight of the nine incarcerated Catalan politicians and forgetting why they were in prison in the first place.”