MADRID: The historic trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders involved in a bid to secede from Spain that plunged the country into crisis starts on Tuesday (Feb 12) as tensions over the future of the wealthy territory flare again.
The proceedings, which begin at 10am local time (0900 GMT) at Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid, will be broadcast live on television. Over 600 journalists from 150 domestic and foreign media are accredited.
The trial is the “most important” since Spain returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Supreme Court president Carlos Lesmes told reporters recently.
It is expected to last three months, with the verdicts delivered several months later.
Catalan separatists have dismissed the trial as a “farce” which is politically motivated. They have called for protesters to hit the streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, at 7pm local time (1800 GMT).
But for many Spaniards who looked on in disbelief as the region’s then executive tried to break from the country in October 2017, the trial is indispensable.
Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s former president who fled to Belgium days after a short-lived declaration of independence on Oct 27, is not among the 12 defendants.
Spain does not try suspects in absentia for major offences.
The trial’s main protagonist is therefore former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras, who opted to remain in Spain. He faces up to 25 years in jail.
The 11 other accused include members of Catalonia’s then executive as well as the two leaders of powerful pro-independence associations, ANC and Omnium Cultural, and the former president of the Catalan parliament. They face jail terms of seven to 17 years.
Nine defendants have been charged with rebellion, with some also accused of misuse of public funds. They have all been in pre-trial detention for months, some of them for more than a year.
The three others are accused of disobedience and misuse of public funds.
After pressing ahead with an independence referendum on Oct 1, 2017 despite a court ban, Catalonia’s then separatist executive declared independence, sparking Spain’s worst political crisis since Franco’s death.
CONTROVERSY OVER REBELLION
Even before the start of the trial, controversy has swirled over the charge of rebellion levelled at Junqueras and eight others.
Under Spanish law, rebellion is defined as “rising up in a violent and public manner”.
But the key, divisive question is whether there actually was any violence.
Public prosecutors argue the defendants “called on citizens to participate in the Oct 1 referendum knowing it was illegal and that explosions of violence could therefore take place”.
But supporters of independence deny the accusation of violence.
They instead denounce police violence during the referendum, images of which were seen in media round the world.
Legal experts are divided.
The state attorneys, lawyers who represent the government, accused the separatist leaders of the lesser charge of sedition, which fetches up to 12 years in jail.
Catalan president Quim Torra is scheduled to attend the first session of the trial on Tuesday, which is expected to focus on procedural issues.
Hundreds of witnesses have been called to testify in court, including former conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy who was in office at the time of the referendum.
Catalonia’s independence drive remains a political hot potato.
Tens of thousands of people joined a rally on Sunday in central Madrid called by right-wing and far-right parties against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who they accuse of “high treason” over his negotiations with Catalan separatists.
Sanchez, who came to power in June with the support of Catalan nationalist parties, had tried to defuse tensions by resuming the talks which were called off under Rajoy.
But Catalan separatists insisted on their demand to hold a referendum on self-determination, which Madrid fiercely opposes, and the talks broke down on Friday.
Sanchez’s minority government relies on the support of Catalan separatist parties to approve its 2019 budget.
But the separatists have vowed to block the budget during a crucial vote in parliament on Wednesday, opening the door for Sanchez to call an early general election.