A Spanish National Police van, allegedly carrying Catalonian politicians and activists, arrives at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. A politically charged trial of a dozen Catalan separatist leaders began Tuesday in Spain’s Supreme Court amid protests and the possibility of an early general election being called in the country. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

MADRID — A former Catalan official accused by Spanish prosecutors of leading a violent rebellion to create an independent republic testified at a top court in Madrid on Thursday that he considers himself “a political prisoner.”

Oriol Junqueras, who was the vice president of the Catalan Cabinet that went ahead with a banned secession referendum in October 2017, was the first of a dozen separatist leaders to testify in the much anticipated Supreme Court trial.

With ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont avoiding prosecution by fleeing to Belgium, Junqueras is the highest-ranking official prosecuted in the case. He faces up to 25 years behind bars if found guilty for rebellion and misuse of public funds.

Gesturing vividly with his hands and answering questions only from his lawyer, Junqueras emphatically rejected the charges and made a strong defense of the Catalan independence movement as non-violent.

“Any noble goal can be immoral if the mechanisms to achieve it are indecent,” he said. “This is valid for the Catalan republic, for the Spanish monarchy, for Europe or anything else.”

The leader of the Catalan left-wing pro-republic party had begun his testimony by telling the panel of seven judges that he is “being accused for my ideas and not for my deeds.” He also declined to answer questions by prosecutors because he regards the trial as a “political” one.

“I consider myself a political prisoner,” he said.

Previously, and responding to allegations made by the Catalans’ defense attorneys, presiding Judge Manuel Marchena said that questioning during the trial would only be allowed to focus on facts, not ideology.

The judge accepted some of the allegations by the defendants. He allowed them to answer questions in their Catalan mother tongue.

Court officials had said that publicizing the trial with full transparency was crucial to disarming the Catalan separatists’ arguments that the proceedings were impartial and tainted by politics.

Junqueras chose to speak in Spanish. He said that gave him the opportunity to address the Spanish public after one year and a half in preventive custody, which he called “a forced silence.”

The 2017 referendum led to an independence declaration, but no action was taken to implement it and no countries recognized the new Catalan republic. A little less than half of voters in the region of 7.5 million support pro-independence parties, results of the last regional election show.

The dramatic events led to a political crisis still reverberating in Spain’s political life. Catalan separatist parties that last year supported a national Socialist administration with minority backing in parliament have dropped their cooperation this week after the prime minister refused to open talks on the region’s self-determination.

The dispute has put the Spanish leader, Pedro Sanchez, under pressure to call an early general election.

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