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Is the Catalan separatist trial in Spain about law or politics?

Spain’s Supreme Court hears a witness last month during the trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders.
Spain’s Supreme Court hears a witness last month during the trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders. (Spain's Supreme Court Ho Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MADRID — The trial that has divided Spain is taking place in a courtroom that is classic Spanish baroque, with marble columns and ornate flourishes. The seven judges preside on gilded, red-
velvet chairs. The 12 defendants, all implicated in staging Catalonia’s independence referendum in October 2017, sit in a small gallery beneath them.

Ferrán López, a Barcelona police officer, was recently called to the stand. In his testimony, he recounted the “unstable and volatile situation” on the day of the referendum and his conversations with regional Catalan leaders before the polls opened.

“We communicated our concerns about the very tense climate this would provoke,” he said. Asked about the response he got, López told the judges he remembered perfectly. Carles Puigdemont — then president of Catalonia’s regional government, now living in exile in Belgium — was firm in his reply. “Mr. Puigdemont,” López recalled, “told us that if the scenario we had predicted took place, he would declare independence at that very moment.”

The Catalan government went ahead with the referendum and the regional parliament voted to declare independence later that month. These defendants face charges that include rebellion, disobedience and misuse of public funds — all of which they deny.

Additional organizers of the referendum, including Puigdemont, are living in exile. They would be arrested if they return to Spain but are not part of this case.

The referendum and subsequent trial have split Spanish society like no other events since the era of dictator Francisco Franco.

In Madrid, the trial of the secessionist agitators is seen as a necessity to maintain the rule of law — the inevitable response to a cohort of public servants who knowingly violated the national constitution and held an independence vote without the required approval from the central government.

But in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, the trial is criticized as political theater — thwarting the will of the people who voted for independence and threatening anyone else from pursuing independence in the future.

As Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s former vice president and one of the defendants, said at the start of the trial, the exercise represents “an action against an ideology and against political dissent.”

“This is rooted in a very long tradition of revenge and violence,” said Jordi Puntí, a Catalan novelist who voted for independence in the 2017 referendum. Whenever Spain’s government has “confronted this political situation,” he said, “they always use the same amount of revenge.”

The Catalan question has fundamentally altered the country’s political landscape, weakening the two parties that have traded power since the early 1980s, and helping to give rise to three new parties, including Vox, a right-wing extremist faction.

The far-right Vox party is a co-accuser in the trial and has taken advantage of the live broadcast to paint itself as the true defender of national unity, repeatedly lambasting the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, of impotence in the face of looming disintegration.

Spanish voters will participate in a snap election on Sunday — a poll forced by Catalan nationalist lawmakers who grew frustrated by talks with Sanchez and blocked his 2019 budget. If Sánchez loses his job, it will be partly because of the Catalan separatist movement and partly because of the backlash to it, in the form of Vox.

For now, however, Sánchez is the preferred candidate of the Catalan nationalists because he has at least shown to be open to negotiations — a point his rivals in this weekend’s elections say compromises his commitment to Spanish unity.

On the trial, Sánchez has stressed Spain’s democratic institutions are up for the task. “Individual rights, public freedoms and the rights of minorities are guaranteed and protected” in Spain, he said when the court proceedings began in February.

Even before the trial started, the separatists’ supporters objected that the defendants were political prisoners who were being unfairly held without bail. (Spanish authorities deemed them a flight risk after Puigdemont’s escape to Belgium.) The separatists further argue that the court is inherently biased against them and that holding the trial in Madrid, the seat of the Supreme Court, rather than Barcelona, further predetermines the outcome.

As in the United States, the judges on Spain’s Supreme Court are political appointees.

Gonzalo Boye, the lawyer representing Puigdemont, said the trial shows a willingness among the judges to wade into political waters. “They have decided that the Catalan issue is so relevant that they can’t leave it in the hands of the politicians,” he said. “And this is tremendous because it’s a political problem, not a judicial problem.”

But Ignacio González Vega, a judge and spokesman for the independent Judges for Democracy, said that so far, “from what I have seen, the court is showing itself to be independent and impartial.”

“The trial is abiding by the most scrupulous requirements of Spanish procedural norms,” he said.

Jean-François Blanco, a French lawyer who is among the international observers, was not as sanguine. He said he was “shocked” by the judges’ decision to ban video footage from the day of the referendum as evidence until after the witnesses’ oral testimonies are over.

“Sincerely, I found that surrealist,” Blanco said. “Who interviews police officers without showing the videos of the incidents concerned?”

The defendants claim that decision has made it harder to challenge the rebellion charge, which rests on the presence of violence on an insurrectional scale.

“Those videos are meant to contradict the testimony. Who is going to remember in May or June what somebody has said in March?” Boye said.

In November, 100 legal experts from across Spain signed a letter condemning the “banalization” of charges that, in their view, did not apply to a demonstration that came nowhere close to a “violent uprising.” Some observers have noted that it was the violence of Spanish police forces seeking to stop the referendum that led to widespread injuries and attracted national attention.

González Vega said the video would be shown, albeit later. “That’s not an irregularity,” he said. “Under no circumstances is that an irregularity. That is a power the court has, to admit or not to admit evidence.”

The European Union has unflinchingly supported Madrid and its contention that the way to push for greater regional autonomy is through the provisions of the Spanish constitution.

Ratified in 1978, Spain’s post-Franco constitution — the work of seven men, two of whom were Catalan — has been seen as a marvel of transitional politics, but the powers it grants to autonomous regions were always vague.

In recent decades, certain Catalan demands for autonomy within the constitution have been granted, although others have been denied, and so some have questioned whether the document failed to adequately prevent the current political crisis.

Miquel Roca, 78, was one of the two Catalan signatories. He noted that the prospect of a legal referendum is considered in the text, but must be approved by the government, just as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was approved by London. Asked if he would change the 1978 document, Roca was firm: “No.”

“This is not a constitutional problem,” he said. “It is a political problem.”

He alluded to the increasing fragmentation of the Spanish political landscape. “It’s difficult to respect pluralism,” he said. “What’s missing is political will. Pacts are for the brave.”

Catalan separatists in court for Spain’s ‘most important’ trial since returning to democracy

Spanish government calls snap general election amid Catalan crisis

Is Spain Francoland? No. Has the Catalan crisis damaged Spanish democracy? Yes.

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