Is he a spy or a sovereigntist? At approximately 7 p.m., Barcelona police arrested a Moroccan-born man named Noureddine Ziani and informed him that he was being deported from Spain, the country where he has legally lived and worked for the past 14 years. Citing a “threat to national security,” Spain’s Center for National Intelligence (CNI) made the request for expulsion on May 3; it was approved earlier today by the Spanish Interior Ministry. The CNI report specifies that Ziani has both collaborated with the intelligence service of a foreign government and has links to Islamist extremists. But Ziani’s supporters, who learned of his troubles earlier this week, suspect that the real motivation for his deportation lies a lot closer to home: for the past year, the 45-year-old businessman and religious leader has worked as liaison to the Muslim community for an organization that promotes independence for the semiautonomous region of Catalonia from Spain.
Whichever allegation proves to be true, Ziani’s case offers an intriguing view of the gathering storm over Catalan independence. Although Catalans have long held a distinct cultural and historical identity from Spaniards, political conflict with the central state came to a head in the fall of 2012, when the regional government responded to intensifying conflicts over issues like taxes and language by initiating a process that it says will lead to a referendum on independence. Although such a vote is illegal under the Spanish constitution, many believe if the Catalans gain enough moral support for a referendum, Spain will be forced to permit it. Which is exactly where Ziani comes in.
Ziani is director of the Catalan-Moroccan outreach program at the New Catalans Foundation. Created in 2012 by Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (a political party included in the ruling Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition that is leading the push for a referendum), the foundation helps immigrants — including those from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe — integrate into Catalan society. To that end, it offers language instruction and assistance with legal and social issues. But one of its main functions is to educate newcomers about the region’s push for independence. “We want new Catalans to understand the benefits of sovereignty,” says foundation director Àngel Colom. Together, he and Ziani have given talks on the subject at mosques throughout the region.
None of that is mentioned in the expulsion demand. “The person in question has, through his activities, favored the objectives of a foreign intelligence service working in Spanish territory against the interests of the Spanish state,” reads the warrant notifying Ziani that deportation proceedings had begun against him. Although the document does not name the foreign entity, other references make it clear that Ziani is being accused of collaborating with Moroccan intelligence. It also accuses him of working to spread “religiously extremist ideologies.” According to the warrant, the demand for expulsion comes after an investigation that began in the year 2000. A government spokesperson told TIME it was policy not to comment on an ongoing case.
Ziani denies the charges, and says although it is true that he attended meetings with Muslim leaders whose religious views were more extreme than his, these were always at the behest of municipal governments who had sought his help mediating local conflicts. “My entire career trajectory, everything I’ve worked for, has always been about the opposite of extremism. I’ve always worked for integration and social harmony,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday. His lawyer, Fátima Zohra Bouhya, says the CNI expulsion demand presents no evidence for its allegations. “If they want to affirm that Mr. Ziani works or collaborates with a foreign intelligence agency, they have to show it,” she says. “If they want to add that he disseminates radical Islam, they have to show that too. We can’t deny things we don’t know about. We can’t defend him against nonexistent evidence.”
Ziani may be mystified by the charges, but other supporters of independence are not. On Wednesday, Alfred Bosch, a member of parliament from the Catalan Republican Left Party (ERC), told Spanish television he saw “indications of a dirty war against Catalan sovereignty movement” in the Ziani case, and activist Abdelhaq Diyer started an online petition requesting that the deportation process be stopped and “the majority will of the people of Catalonia to decide their own future” be respected. At the New Catalans Foundation, Ziani’s boss Colom, who is also Secretary of Immigration for CiU, agrees. “I don’t think there’s any question that this is politically motivated. It’s not the first time that the Spanish government has gone after supporters of Catalan sovereignty.”
Colom was referring to an incident that occurred just before last fall’s snap regional elections, which were called to gauge support for pursuing a referendum. A draft of an anonymous police report mysteriously surfaced in the newspaper El Mundo, suggesting that Catalan president Artur Mas was being investigated for financial misdeeds (the accusations proved to be false though not before the Popular Party, which controls the Spanish government and fiercely opposes Catalan independence, called for Mas to sign a statement swearing he had no money hidden away in offshore accounts).
While Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz affirmed in a statement to the press on Wednesday that the pending expulsion “had nothing to do with [Ziani’s] activities in favor of independence,” the suggestion by proindependence activists that such a motivation may be in play underlines their growing awareness that the region’s sizable immigrant population could be a spoiler in any future decision. When Quebec held its last referendum on independence in 1995, 90% of the recently nationalized immigrants who voted opposed separating from Canada. That statistic weighs heavily on the minds of proindependence organizers in Catalonia, who know that people who have recently won Spanish nationality — 300,000 have done so in the past decade — may be loath to lose it.
According to Hermes Castro, even those who are not yet citizens may play an important role. Chief administrator of Fedelatina, a consortium of Latin American immigrant groups, he helps run an association that is not affiliated with any political party, although it receives a small subsidy from the regional government for its language and vocational training courses. “Latin Americans tend to be more politically active than Europeans — they turn up at rallies, they join parties,” Castro says. “And many of them have a certain affinity for independence. At first they may not understand what’s happening here, but then they say, ‘Oh, they want to break from Spain, just like we did 200 years ago.’ So for the political parties here, we’re starting to have a certain degree of relevance.”
That relevance may help explain why Ramon Tremosa, member of the European Parliament for CiU, denounced the deportation demand before the European Commission on May 13 and asked it to look into whether Ziani’s human rights had been violated. “I don’t know Mr. Ziani, but I find it very strange that he would be deported for being a security threat,” says Tremosa. “There have been several imams and Muslim leaders in Catalonia who publicly reject Western values and threaten social harmony, and yet no one is deporting them. Ziani is fully Westernized and integrated into Catalan society, he goes around giving talks in favor of democratic values, and now he’s being expelled? I have a bad feeling about that.”
Tremosa also points out an apparent contradiction in the document: its allegation that Ziani works both for Moroccan intelligence and to promote Salafist ideas. “It seems very curious,” he says. “The Moroccan government is opposed to Salafism, it does everything it can to crack down on extremism. So how can he be doing both?”
Ziani’s lawyer was not informed of the arrest and has yet to see the expulsion edict. “I only learned what had happened after calling the police repeatedly,” she says. “They finally confirmed it as if they were doing me a favor.” Legally, the Spanish authorities are not obliged to notify her; in many deportation cases, the defendant’s lawyer only learns of the expulsion when the defendant is getting on the plane.
Even after receiving word of the expulsion request on May 3, Ziani continued to work on behalf of Moroccan immigrants in Catalonia. This week he helped launch a course designed to train imams living in the region in local practices and values. But yesterday he admitted that the case against him has shaken his faith in his adopted country. “Is it a crime for an immigrant to involve himself in Catalonia’s political process?” he asks. “Is it a crime for him to feel Catalan? If that’s democracy, I don’t want it.”