As Spain’s trial of Catalan separatists ends, political tensions endure

Andres Ballesteros/Pool/AFP | File photo of Spanish judges hearing defence lawyers at Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid.

The trial of Catalan separatists accused of trying to prise their region from Spain is scheduled to end on Wednesday after four months of intense hearings, which impacted national politics.


In proceedings broadcast live on television, 12 defendants have been in the dock every week, their role in organising an illegal referendum on secession and a short-lived declaration of independence in October 2017 under meticulous scrutiny.

For some, they are "political prisoners" repressed by the Spanish state -- and a protest by independence supporters is planned in Barcelona to mark the end of the trial.

For others, they broke the law and risked Spain's unity in the country's worst political crisis since its transition to democracy in the 1970s.

Nine are charged with rebellion, including Catalonia's former vice-president Oriol Junqueras who risks 25 years in jail, the heaviest sentence, and three face lesser charges of disobedience and misuse of public funds.

All 12 are expected to take the stand one last time on Wednesday.

Beyond the closely-watched proceedings at Spain's Supreme Court, the trial has shone the spotlight back onto key figures in Catalonia's independence drive, some of whom have been behind bars for over a year and a half.

With Catalonia's former president Carles Puigdemont, the main protagonist of the secession attempt, conspicuously absent after he fled Spain, that spotlight has shone brightest on his former deputy Junqueras.

"I am being prosecuted for my ideas and not for my actions," he told the court in February, prompting a later retort by prosecutors that the defendants were on trial for having broken the law, not for their opinions.

Not content with sitting through four months of hearings, the 50-year-old was elected lawmaker to the national parliament in an April general election along with four other fellow defendants. They were later suspended from parliament.

On May 26, Junqueras was also elected to the European Parliament and hopes to keep that post, although how that will happen remains to be seen.

Crucial sentencing due later

Going forward, all eyes will now be on the sentence, which is not expected until later in the year.

"No matter what it is, the sentence will be interpreted by the independence movement as an element to hold on to, to try to mobilise its camp again," said politics professor Oriol Bartomeus.

He predicted that the sentence could push Catalonia's separatist-led government into calling snap regional elections or even "a reaction like disobedience."

By and large, however, Bartomeus said the trial did not appear to have swayed opinion in either camp in Catalonia, the wealthy region in northeastern Spain where around 47 percent are pro-independence.

"The trial will have been useful to strengthen an independence movement that had been left without much horizon or road ahead" months after the secession bid, he said.

Still, the trial -- and by extension the secession crisis in Catalonia -- continues to impact national politics.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was forced to call a snap election on April 28 after his 2019 budget failed to be voted through when Catalan separatist lawmakers refused to back it, partly in solidarity with those in the dock.


Perhaps the most controversial element in the trial has been the charge of rebellion levelled at nine of the defendants.

Under Spanish law, rebellion is a serious offence that implies a violent uprising.

Defence lawyers and independence supporters insist there was no violence, pointing to the peaceful nature of the movement.

Prosecutors argue that the defendants "fomented, favoured and sought the direct confrontation between the crowds of citizens and police," particularly during the banned independence referendum on October 1, 2017, which was marred by police violence.

On Tuesday, Junqueras's lawyer Andreu Van den Eynde said there may have been disobedience but never rebellion, accusing prosecutors of "bias and exaggeration."

The trial's chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza, however, has said the secession bid was a "coup d'etat" aimed at "wiping out the Spanish constitution."


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