Twelve Catalan separatist leaders went on trial in Madrid Tuesday, facing charges including rebellion and sedition over a failed independence bid in 2017.
If found guilty, some of the defendants could face sentences of up to 25 years in prison.
The trial has placed a renewed spotlight on tensions surrounding the independence aspirations of Catalonia, a wealthy semi-autonomous region in northeast Spain. Catalonia’s regional parliament triggered Spain’s most serious constitutional crisis in decades when it unilaterally declared it was breaking away from Madrid in October 2017.
The declaration came weeks after the Catalan government held a referendum on independence that had been ruled illegal by Spanish courts, and which was largely boycotted by pro-unionist Catalans.
Madrid responded to the declaration by immediately imposing direct rule over the region, and arresting pro-independence leaders who did not flee the country.
Oriol Junqueras, the former Catalan vice president who is the highest-ranking former Catalan official to stand trial, says the charges are politically motivated.
His lawyer, Andreu Van den Eynde, told the court Tuesday that the defendants had the right to seek self-determination. “No international or EU law blocks the secession of a regional entity,” he said.
“Self-determination is synonymous with peace and not war.”
This was echoed by another of the accused, pro-independence civil society leader Jordi Sànchez, who tweeted Tuesday: “I am going with my head held high, convinced that self-determination is not a crime.”
But prosecutors argue that the independence push went against Spain’s constitution, which explicitly guarantees “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” The Spanish government is broadcasting the trial live, and has gone on a PR offensive internationally in a bid to underline the independence of the Spanish judicial system, and counter the Catalan narrative that the charges are anti-democratic.
Who is on trial?
Standing trial alongside Junqueras are former Catalan ministers, the former speaker of the Catalan regional parliament and the leaders of grassroots pro-independence organizations.
They include Sànchez, former president of the Catalan National Assembly; Jordi Cuixart, leader of the Òmnium Cultural civil society group; and Carme Forcadell, former president of the Catalan parliament.
Catalan politicians Joaquim Forn, Raul Romeva, Dolors Bassa, Carles Mundo, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Meritxell Borras, and Santi Vila are also facing charges.
Nine of them have been held in jail without bail.
As the trial opened, rival crowds of Spanish nationalists and supporters of Catalan independence gathered near the courthouse. Supporters of the accused held signs reading “Freedom for political prisoners,” while their opponents shouted that those on trial were “coup plotters” and “terrorists,” and insisting “Catalonia is Spain.”
What are the charges?
The accused face charges including rebellion, sedition, disobedience and embezzlement — the latter relating to the alleged misuse of public funds to hold a referendum that had been declared illegal by Spanish courts.
Nine of the defendants face the charge of rebellion, the most serious in the case. Under Spanish law, rebellion is defined as a “violent, public uprising.”
But the defendants argue that their movement was peaceful and that no violent uprising occurred. They claim that any violence came from police, who carried out a brutal crackdown on voters participating in the referendum.
What is the state of the independence movement?
While Madrid’s imposition of direct rule over Catalonia effectively defused the independence push in 2017, Catalan politicians continue to advocate for self-determination, and the issue remains a volatile fault line in Spanish politics. Thousands gathered in Madrid Sunday in a pro-unity demonstration against Catalan independence.
Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, the architect of the independence push, is attempting to lead a “government in exile” from his new home in Belgium, where he fled to avoid arrest in the days following the independence declaration.
Puigdemont, who faces immediate arrest if he returns to Spain, said Tuesday that the trial represented a stress test for Spanish democracy.
The trial also comes at a critical time for Spain’s government. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has faced criticism from nationalists for taking a less combative stance to the secessionists than his predecessors, needs support from Catalan nationalists to pass his budget in a vote scheduled for Wednesday.
But the Catalan camp, citing Sanchez’s refusal to discuss the possibility of independence, have said they’ll block the bill — an outcome that could trigger snap elections.
The trial is expected to last a minimum of three months.
Cover image: Protesters hold a banner reading 'traitors' with drawings depicting Catalan separatist leaders near the Supreme Court during the trial of Catalan separatist leaders on February 12, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)