Long-awaited trial of Catalan separatist leaders begins in Spain

Published 9:08 AM EST, Tue February 12, 2019
BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Students get caught in an air vent as they gather to demonstrate against the position of the Spanish government to ban the self-determination referendum of Catalonia during a strike by university students on September 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Catalan government is keeping with its plan to hold a referendum, due to take place on October 1, which has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28: Students get caught in an air vent as they gather to demonstrate against the position of the Spanish government to ban the self-determination referendum of Catalonia during a strike by university students on September 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Catalan government is keeping with its plan to hold a referendum, due to take place on October 1, which has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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(CNN) —  

The leaders of the failed 2017 Catalan independence movement appeared in court on Tuesday for the start of a long-awaited trial that has the whole of Spain talking.

Twelve leaders are appearing before the country’s Supreme Court in Madrid on charges of rebellion and violating court orders, among others.

The separatist leaders triggered a standoff with the Spanish capital after attempting to push forward with the region’s secession in the fall of 2017, sparking the country’s worst political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s.

Judge Manuel Marchena (C) speaks next to magistrates during the trial of former Catalan separatist leaders at the Supreme Court in Madrid on February 12.
Judge Manuel Marchena (C) speaks next to magistrates during the trial of former Catalan separatist leaders at the Supreme Court in Madrid on February 12.
PHOTO: EMILIO NARANJO/AFP/Getty Images

Catalan separatists have dismissed the trial as a “farce” and said the outcome for the 12 defendants has been pre-determined.

Spanish Supreme Court President Carlos Lesmes has branded the proceedings “the most important trial we’ve had in democracy.”

Who’s on trial?

The defendants – most of whom are ex-officials of the Catalan regional government – are being tried for their roles in the botched bid for regional independence.

Twelve former Catalan leaders go on trial at Spain
Twelve former Catalan leaders go on trial at Spain's Supreme Court for their role in a failed 2017 bid to break away from Spain.
PHOTO: EMILIO NARANJO/AFP/Getty Images

Despite warnings from the national administration in Madrid that any vote would be unconstitutional, Catalonia went ahead with a referendum, which saw 90% vote in favor of independence, but turnout was low and marred by a violent police crackdown.

The scenes shocked Catalans and reverberated around Europe. Madrid’s representative to Catalonia later apologized for the violence.

After the vote, Madrid seized control of the region and dismissed the entire Catalan government and Parliament. In a bid to curb the calls for secession, it held new regional elections that December but was delivered a blow when voters backed separatist parties.

With the Catalonia question back in the global spotlight, Supreme Court President Lesmes has said he expects proceedings to last around three months.

Perhaps the most prominent name to appear in court is Oriol Junqueras, former deputy leader of Catalonia and head of the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) party. Junqueras faces up to 25 years in jail if found guilty.

One notable absence will be that of his erstwhile boss – and the previous leader of Catalonia – Carles Puigdemont, who is living in self-imposed exile in Brussels.

Of the 12 defendants, three were released on bail until this week’s court proceedings, as they face lesser charges of disobedience and embezzlement and were not considered flight risks.

How the court proceedings will unfold

The Spanish government has been keen to combat any claims of prejudice, publishing a file of documents to illustrate how Spain’s justice system is as impartial and fair as its European counterparts.

Included in the documentation were court rankings by the European Commission, the European Court of Human Rights and Transparency International.

A panel of seven Supreme Court justices will preside over the trial and the verdict must be approved by a majority of the panel.

Additionally, the trial will be broadcast live on television so that all can judge the neutrality of the country’s highest court.

About 500 witnesses are expected to testify, including Mariano Rajoy, who was the country’s Prime Minister during the constitutional crisis.

Upon completion of proceedings, the panel of judges is expected to take some time to reach a verdict. As such, Lesmes has predicted that an outcome is unlikely before late June.

What drove the bid for independence?

Catalonia is the richest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. It has its own government and holds considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection.

But the region still pays tax to Madrid, and separatists argue that complex mechanisms for redistributing tax revenue are unfair on wealthier areas.

Catalonia has long complained that its revenues subsidize other parts of Spain. The region hosts some 16% of the Spanish population and much of the country’s manufacturing and finance sectors.

Catalan nationalists argue that they are a separate nation with their own history, culture and language and that they should have increased fiscal independence.

The Catalonia question had been bubbling away for years before Puigdemont came to prominence. But it gained momentum after Spain’s economy plunged during the financial crisis in 2010 and was further galvanized by the Scottish referendum for independence in 2014, which ultimately saw voters opt to remain part of the United Kingdom.