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.
Supreme Court president Carlos Lesmes has called the trial the most important “in [Spain’s 40-year] democracy”.
Joaquim Torra, the current Catalan leader, was greeted by shouts of “coup monger” at the entrance to the court and the live video stream of the trial was briefly interrupted by what Spain’s judiciary council called a “malicious” online attack.
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. In an opinion piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Tuesday, Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president, said the trial would “highlight the fragility of Spanish democracy and the worrying politicisation of the justice system”.
The government of socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez has hit back with an international PR campaign to bolster Spain’s image as a modern democracy and counter what it framed as years of unchecked and hostile disinformation by a deft secessionist movement.
In a probable precursor to an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in the event of a conviction, 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.
In his call to dismiss the case, Jordi Pina, who represents independence activist Jordi Sànchez and two other defendants, questioned the impartiality of the investigating judge, who in one judicial ruling referred to “the [independence] strategy we suffered”.
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.
“This government is not going to accept any kind of blackmail,” finance minister María Jesús Montero said as she presented the budget in parliament Tuesday. “The right of self-determination for Catalonia will not be on the agenda.”
The separatist parties are expected to vote alongside the PP 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.
“After seven years of social injustice, the rightwing and the independence movement will vote against social budget proposals. Both want the same: a Catalonia in conflict with itself and a Spain in conflict with itself,” Mr Sanchez said on Twitter. “We are working for a Catalonia in coexistence for a united Spain.”
After the first day of the trial came to a close, Mr Torra demanded the court drop the case and called on Mr Sánchez to “have the courage that the moment demands” to negotiate a referendum on Catalan independence from Spain.
“In a normal country,” Mr Torra said on Tuesday night, “the endless list of violations, restrictions and discriminations against the political prisoners that their lawyers have laid out today would cause the immediate dismissal of the case.”
Get alerts on European separatism when a new story is published