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Catalan separatists' trial a 'test for Spanish democracy', says Puigdemont

Hannibal Hanschke, Reuters | Ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont addresses the media in Berlin, Germany, February 12, 2019, as twelve Catalan politicians go on trial for their role in Catalonia's failed 2017 independence bid.

Catalonia's former leader Carles Puigdemont said Tuesday the high-profile trial of 12 ex-colleagues involved in a secession bid was a "stress test for Spanish democracy".

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The protagonist of a failed attempt to break Catalonia from Spain in 2017, Puigdemont was conspicuously absent from the trial of separatist leaders that opened in Madrid.

The presence of the former Catalan president who fled Spain will be felt from afar, however, as he is expected to take advantage of the high-profile event to further his cause in Europe.

As 12 of his ex-colleagues sat on the bench in Madrid's Supreme Court, including nine former regional government members, the 56-year-old spoke to reporters in Berlin.

It's "a stress test for Spanish democracy," he said, as well as a "test for the Spanish judiciary."

Defence lawyer denounces 'political' trial

The previous evening, the bespectacled former journalist was one of the star guests of a film gala for peace in the German capital, along with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa.

That would have been scarcely imaginable three years ago, when Puigdemont, virtually unknown at the time, was propelled to the presidency of Catalonia with a mandate to lead it to independence.

He was thrust into the global spotlight in October 2017 when his executive held an outlawed referendum on self-determination, marred by police violence, that was followed by a short-lived declaration of independence.

Madrid promptly sacked Puigdemont and his executive, dissolved the regional parliament, called snap local elections and imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous, wealthy northeastern region.

Puigdemont opted to escape to Belgium, leaving behind colleagues such as his deputy Oriol Junqueras, who is now the most high-profile defendant in the trial. Junqueras faces up to 25 years in jail.

Branded a "fugitive" and a "coward" by his rivals, Puigdemont says he is available for a hearing at "fair" courts in Germany or Belgium.

"I want to return to my home, that is obvious, I want to be with my family, that is clear, but I want to return to a real democracy with a clear separation of powers, with all guarantees to all people," he said in Berlin.

Now living in Waterloo, the Belgian city famous for the battle that left Napoleon defeated, in what he calls the "House of the Republic," he will be closely following the three-month trial.

A look back at Catalonia's failed independence bid

Born in Amer, a small mountainous village of 2,200 people in Catalonia, the second of eight siblings, Puigdemont is renowned as a staunch separatist.

"In Catalonia, many people became separatists in an allergic reaction to Madrid's policies. Not him, he always had these convictions," said Puigdemont's friend Antoni Puigverd, a poet and journalist.

Puigdemont has never hidden his separatist tendencies, not even when he joined the conservative CDC party in 1980 at a time when it merely wanted to negotiate greater autonomy for Catalonia -- not a full break from Spain.

For 17 years he worked for Catalonia's nationalist daily newspaper El Punt and was also mayor of the city of Girona -- a separatist stronghold -- from 2011 to 2016.

Critics say his radical idealism led Catalonia to the brink of conflict in October 2017.

Enric Millo, who was Madrid's representative in Catalonia during the crisis and knew Puigdemont before he became regional leader, said Puigdemont became "fanatical" after he took the post.

"He saw himself with the divine mission to lead Catalonia to independence," Millo said.

Millo accuses Puigdemont of maintaining a semblance of power as "president in exile" of Catalonia.

For the more radical members of the independence movement, Puigdemont's aura as "president" remains.

But among moderates, Junqueras is gaining ground and both are locked in a battle for leadership of the movement -- one from afar, and the other from jail where he has been held in pre-trial custody.

Puigdemont speaks French, English and Romanian as he is married to a Romanian journalist, Marcela Topor, with whom he has two daughters.

In Europe, Puigdemont has travelled to the Netherlands, Ireland, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany and even the Faroe islands to publicise his cause.

(AFP)

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