Catalan secession bid

In Spain, a political storm precedes trial of Catalan independence leaders

The prosecution and the defense’s strategies will hinge on whether any violence was used during the bid for unilateral secession

Clockwise from top left: Raül Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Turull, Oriol Junqueras, Josep Rull, Jordi Sànchez, Dolors Bassa, Carme Forcadell, Jordi Cuixart.
Clockwise from top left: Raül Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Turull, Oriol Junqueras, Josep Rull, Jordi Sànchez, Dolors Bassa, Carme Forcadell, Jordi Cuixart.

With just hours to go before Spain’s Supreme Court opens the trial of the leaders of the failed Catalan secession bid, all political bridges between Madrid and Barcelona appear to be have been burnt.

But according to some, there is still room for things to get even worse.

In an effort to maximize transparency and avoid accusations of bias, the Supreme Court has allowed live coverage of the hearings

The Catalan justice chief, Ester Capella, on Friday reiterated a message that the independence movement has been repeating for months: guilty verdicts will only deepen the Catalan crisis.

Starting on Tuesday, 12 people will stand trial at the Supreme Court for their role in facilitating the illegal independence referendum of October 1, 2017 and the unilateral independence declaration subsequently passed by separatist parties in the Catalan parliament (see box).

The breakdown of talks between the central and Catalan governments last week only adds to the pressure on a trial that separatist leaders have worked hard to discredit, arguing that convictions are a given, and that the European courts will ultimately shine a light on the problems with the Spanish justice system in general, and with the Supreme Court in particular.

And on Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched to protest the government’s alleged concessions to the separatists and to demand a snap election. Whether this happens will largely depend on the outcome of a congressional vote on Wednesday to either support or reject the 2019 budget plan.

Never before had so much suspicion been cast over a court and its judges – but then again, never before had a trial held so much sway over Spain’s political future, internal cohesiveness and international prestige.

In an effort to maximize transparency and avoid accusations of bias, the Supreme Court will allow live coverage of the hearings, which are expected to last around three months.

But the seven judges – six men and one woman – who will sit on a panel presided by Chief Justice Manuel Marchena know that this will probably not be enough to undo the negative image of the Spanish justice system that the independence movement has already created in the minds of a considerable number of their European colleagues, helped by the passive diplomatic attitude of the previous government of Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP).

The fact that defendants have been in pretrial custody has been used as an argument against Spain’s justice system

“The independence movement has managed to spread the idea across Europe that political dissidence is punished with jail in Spain,” says Álvaro García Ortiz, spokesman for the Union of Progressive Prosecutors of Spain (UPF). “To Spanish judges and prosecutors, this is a tragedy, because we are losing all the prestige that we have earned over the last 40 years. There are already international forums where they put us on the same level as Poland or Turkey.”

García Ortiz once wrote a letter to French judges in which he used a bitter kind of humor to try to deconstruct the Catalan independence movement’s most serious accusations against Spanish democracy.

“No, we Spaniards have not gone crazy, nor have we gone back 40 years when we buried a dictator whom most of the population never even knew. […] Let’s get serious: this country is as good or as bad as any other neighboring country, with a democracy that could manifestly bear improvement, just like all Western democracies […]. Let’s take a look at rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. Between 1959 and 2017, Spain, with a population of 46 million, was found at fault in 103 rulings; France, with a population of 66 million, was ruled against on 728 occasions over the same period.”

The fact that defendants have been held in pretrial custody has been used as an argument against Spain’s justice system.

“How are you going to release someone who is accused of crimes that could mean 25 years in prison and who does not have the most basic trust in the honor of the court?” asks a high-placed official at the Supreme Court. “It makes sense to think that some of them at least will try to flee, just like [Carles] Puigdemont.” The former Catalan premier left Spain in the wake of the unilateral declaration of independence, and is still wanted for arrest. Six other separatist politicians involved in the independence bid also fled the country to avoid trial.

Two different tales

The first battle inside the courtroom will be a dialectical one between two sides wishing to impose their own view of the facts. Was Catalan independence “on the verge of happening,” as the prosecution argues, or was the whole thing one giant bluff to force Madrid to negotiate concessions? Was the September 2017 demonstration outside the Catalan Economy Department “a siege by a mob,” or was it “a peaceful protest?”

Legal expert

“There are some objective facts. Things happened. But the important thing is what you project onto those facts, what lens you see them through,” says a legal expert who is not involved in the trial.

The public prosecution has used police reports to craft a narrative that speaks of “violence” and “rebellion.” But the defense says that these are merely “opinions and assessments” that “have no basis whatsoever on reality.”

Defining the “playing field,” in the words of the outside expert, is key because the existence or absence of violence can determine the outcome of the trial.

Prosecutors are defining the independence bid, known popularly as the “procès,” as “a perfectly planned and organized strategy” to “fracture the constitutional order” of Spain and achieve independence.

Who is being tried for what?

There are 12 defendants in the upcoming Supreme Court trial, nine of whom are currently in pretrial custody. Those being held behind bars are: Oriol Junqueras, who was the deputy Catalan premier at the time of the alleged offenses; Carme Forcadell, who was speaker of the Catalan parliament; the regional department chiefs Jordi Turull (presidential affairs), Raül Romeva (foreign affairs), Josep Rull (territory and sustainability), Dolors Bassa (labor and social affairs), and Joaquim Forn (interior affairs); and Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, the leaders of two civic associations that collaborated with the Catalan government to promote the independence drive.

The three other defendants are the former regional chiefs Meritxell Borràs (government affairs), Carles Mundó (justice) and Santiago Vila (business and knowledge).

They face one or more of the following charges: rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, criminal association and disobedience. The three different prosecuting parties – the public prosecution, the solicitor general and the private accusation brought by the far-right party Vox – are asking for different sentences. In the case of Oriol Junqueras, for instance, the requested prison terms range from 12 to 74 years.

According to this view, the Catalan government, parliament and two civic associations named ANC and Òmnium worked towards “a patent insurrection” against the Spanish state, with the goal of “declaring independence and forcing the state to accept it.”

The independence movement, on the contrary, holds that the only violence on display was that of law enforcement officers who physically prevented citizens from peacefully voting at the referendum of October 1, 2017. The defense team says their clients merely acted on “the mandate from the people” and never used violent means to declare independence.

English version by Susana Urra.

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