Is he a spy or a sovereigntist? At approximately 7 p.m. this evening, 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 semi-autonomous 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 that if the Catalans gain enough moral support for a referendum Spain will be forced to permit it. Which is exactly where Ziani comes in.