Twelve Catalan separatist leaders went on trial in the Supreme Court in Madrid on Tuesday over their roles in the region’s failed independence bid, a case that could lead to the collapse of Spain’s ruling coalition and usher in early elections.
Former regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras and 11 other pro-secession politicians and activists face jail terms of up to 25 years on charges that include rebellion, sedition, civil disobedience and misuse of public funds in a case that Supreme Court president Carlos Lesmes has called the “most important trial we have had in [Spain’s 40-year] democracy.”
The defendants have spent months — and in some cases more than a year — in pre-trial detention in connection with the 2017 secession referendum, declared unconstitutional by Spain’s constitutional court. The declaration of independence led to the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy. The Spanish constitution refers to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
In the lead-up to the trial, Catalan separatist parties have questioned the independence of the Spanish judiciary. The government of socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, hit back with a PR campaign to counter what it framed as years of unchecked and hostile disinformation by a deft secessionist movement.
In their opening arguments, lawyers for the defendants said that the case was politically motivated and laid out a strategy to fight the charges on legal and political grounds.
Andreu Van den Eynde, who represents Mr Junqueras, said the case violated fundamental rights of assembly, protest and free speech. “This case is criminalising activities of freedom of speech — it mentions speeches, articles, conferences, putting a vote in a polling box, songs, shouts. This is what is being judged,” he said.
He also slammed the charge of rebellion, which applies to those who “rise violently and publicly” to declare independence of part of the country. The secession push was overwhelmingly non-violent, and Mr Van den Eynde described the charge as a “novel and unpredictable” interpretation of the law.
Judicial analysts largely agree that the decision to hold a secession poll and issue a unilateral declaration of independence, despite repeated court warnings, was in breach of the law. But many have expressed doubts about the long pre-trial detentions and the charge of rebellion.
The trial comes at a delicate time for the minority government of Mr Sánchez, with a parliamentary vote on Spain’s budget due this week. Talks between Mr Sánchez’s socialist party and Catalan separatist parties — which supported him in the confidence vote that ousted former centre-right prime minister Mariano Rajoy in June last year — broke down over Mr Sánchez’s refusal to negotiate a referendum on secession.
The separatist parties are expected to vote against opening the debate on Mr Sánchez’s proposed budget on Wednesday, a move that could force Mr Sánchez to call early elections as soon as April.
“The independence of Catalonia is neither constitutional nor do the majority of Catalans want it,” Mr Sánchez wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Politics makes strange bedfellows. The pro-independence movement will vote against good social budgets for Catalonia, and the right will vote against social budgets that are good for Spain. Could it be that they live better through confrontation than in solutions?”
Six other Catalan politicians await trial on lesser charges in a Barcelona court, while seven others, including former regional leader Carles Puigdemont, have fled to other European countries to avoid prosecution.
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