Catalan trial to begin amid Spanish political uncertainty
Madrid election rumours rife as rebellion and sedition court case gets under way
Jailed catalan separatists leaders Jordi Sànchez, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Turull, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Cuixart, Josep Rull and Raul Romeva inside Lledoners jail in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, 50km from Barcelona. Photograph: Omnium Cultural/AFP)
A highly anticipated court case begins in Spain on Tuesday, as 12 Catalan leaders face trial for their alleged role in their region’s failed bid for independence. The court case begins against a backdrop of deep political uncertainty, with the future of the Spanish Socialist government in doubt.
Former members of the Catalan regional government and grass-roots leaders face charges that include violent rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds linked to an independence referendum staged on October 1st, 2017, in defiance of the Spanish courts. That vote was followed by a unilateral declaration of independence, which was never implemented.
Oriol Junqueras, former vice-president of Catalonia, could face a 25-year jail sentence if found guilty, according to charges brought against him by the state attorney. Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, former leaders of Catalonia’s two biggest pro-independence rank-and-file organisations, each face possible sentences of 17 years.
On Monday, Olivier Peter, lawyer for Mr Cuixart, described it as “one of the most important trials in modern European history” and a court case “against the exercise of democratic rights”.
Mr Peter and others representing the defendants say that the Spanish judiciary is deeply politicised and that the state is seeking to use this trial to punish pro-independence ideology, rather than any crime. They point to the fact that Mr Sànchez, Mr Cuixart, Mr Junqueras and six others have been in preventive custody in recent months, even though the trial’s date was not confirmed until a few days before its start.
Spanish authorities roundly reject such claims. Government spokeswoman Isabel Celaá said the trial “will have all the visibility and guarantees appropriate for [a country with] rule of law and separation of powers”.
The independence movement, which has been in disarray in recent months, sees the trial as an opportunity to unite. It is planning a series of demonstrations against the judicial process, starting on Tuesday in Catalonia.
But the court case comes at a particularly contentious moment in Spanish national politics. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Madrid against prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his approach to the northeastern region.
Led by three right-wing unionist parties – the Popular Party (PP), Ciudadanos and the hard-right Vox – protesters demanded that Mr Sánchez stop engaging with the Catalan government and call immediate elections. PP leader Pablo Casado has even accused the prime minister of committing “high treason” with his Catalan policy.
Mr Sánchez has met twice with Catalan president Quim Torra and restored a working group between Madrid and the region, gestures that Mr Casado and others have portrayed as threatening the unity of Spain. But Mr Sánchez has remained firm in refusing to discuss the independence movement’s biggest demand: a binding referendum on separation from Spain.
As a result, recent exploratory negotiations with the Catalan government have stalled, a development that has wider repercussions. In order to get his 2019 budget approved, Mr Sánchez needs the backing of the two main Catalan pro-independence forces in the national parliament, the Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). With that support apparently faltering, the prime minister might feel forced to call a snap election, with reports circulating that he is mulling holding one as early as mid-April.
If that were the case, the election would probably take place when the trial is still going on, feeding in to its drama. The country’s resurgent right is hoping that the next election will see it oust the Socialists from power, allowing Madrid to introduce a much more confrontational policy regarding Catalonia.
In the meantime, events in Spain’s supreme court over the coming weeks will be watched with intense interest, by unionists and separatists alike.
As Mr Cuixart’s lawyer, Olivier Peter, said on Monday: “The world is looking at Madrid.”