High-profile trial starts of former Catalan leaders who were held after failed independence bid

The twelve accused sit in the dock ahead of the opening session on Tuesday.
The twelve accused sit in the dock ahead of the opening session on Tuesday. / EFE
  • Defence lawyers are centring their case on an abuse of human rights, while prosecutors want to "uphold the constitution"

Television sets across Spain were this week tuned to live coverage of the first days of a historic trial that is set to cast its shadow over the country's political life for several months.

In the dock at the national Supreme Court in Madrid are the 12 former senior Catalan politicians and civic leaders who are accused of various charges ranging from rebellion, citing rebellion and corruption in the Catalan regional government's failed plan to unilaterally declare independence in September and October 2017.

The plan, or 'procés' as it is known, was halted when an illegal independence referendum was disrupted and the national government imposed direct rule under the Spanish constitution. The majority of the 12 have been in jail since then awaiting trial.

As seventeen months ago, there was widespread international media interest in the Catalan independence issue this week. In the public area to watch proceedings at the opening on Tuesday was current regional president and pro-separatist Quim Torra.

Torra called for the trial to be halted and for Catalonia to have its right of self-determination recognised. Divisions on policy within the multiparty Catalan independence movement showed up in some strained body language between some in the court.

Human rights defence

The defence case of the 12's lawyers, as revealed in the court on Tuesday, will focus on an abuse of human rights and the alleged political motives of the Spanish government. The accused are hoping the case will be eventually heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

There was no shortage of opinion from outside the courtroom. Former Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, who led the ''procés'' and is in self-imposed exile in Brussels, commented, "For us, putting out ballot boxes isn't rebellion, neither is it considered to be the Spanish legal system."

In contrast, respected veteran former prime minister, Felipe González, supporting the trial, said, " The democratic rules of play must be respected, even if you want to change them."

On Wednesday, the prosecution laid out the basis of its case, saying that the trial was aimed at supporting "the constitutional order" and denying that they were being accused just for their political ideas. In addition to the government, far-right party Vox is present at the trial in a private prosecution, permitted under Spanish law.

Key players questioned

With Puigdemont out of the country, the questioning of his former number two in Catalonia and leader of the republican ERC party, Oriol Junqueras, was eagerly awaited on Thursday.

In comments in court he said, "We've never backed behaviour that isn't peaceful and civilised," adding, "No public money was used in the referendum."

Junqueras was followed by the former regional Interior minister, Joaquim Forn, who was responsible for the regional police that had been criticised. "I ordered the Mossos [the regional police] to comply with all the court orders," said Forn on Thursday, denying use for political ends.

The historic trial will continue to run throughout a likely general election this spring, influencing voting decisions in Catalonia and across Spain.