Spain’s Catalan trial ends, but tensions remain

Politically charged court case draws to a close after four months

Pro-independence activists plan to assemble giant TV screens in town squares across Catalonia so that locals can follow events taking place several hundred kilometres away, in the supreme court in Madrid on Wednesday. These preparations reflect the enormous interest in the trial of 12 Catalan leaders which is coming to a close after four months.

The defendants face accusations of crimes related to their region’s failed bid to secede in 2017 and this is widely seen as the most important, and politically charged, court case in Spain’s modern era.

The charges presented by state prosecutors against nine of the accused include rebellion and sedition. Former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras could face up to 25 years in prison, while rank-and-file independence leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart could face 17-year sentences. All nine have been in preventive custody for well over a year.

The three other defendants, who face lesser charges, have been free on bail. On Wednesday, the accused will be allowed to give final statements to the court before it adjourns.


Despite the exhaustive scale of the trial, it seems to have done little to shift the respective positions of the plaintiffs and the defence.

“More than 50 sessions, 422 witnesses, five pieces of expert evidence and some extensive documentary evidence have left the two sides exactly where they were at the start of the trial,” noted El País. Nor has the trial altered the view of Spain’s political parties or public opinion on the matter, the newspaper added.

The plaintiffs – the public prosecutor, the state lawyer and the far-right Vox party – have presented this as a clear-cut case of criminality. Last week, public prosecutor Javier Zaragoza appeared to harden his stance by describing the 2017 independence drive as “a coup d’état”.

His colleague, Jaime Moreno, said: “I don’t think that from what we have heard or seen in this trial that it can be concluded that there was not violence.”

Outlawed referendum

Both claims seek to justify the rebellion charge, focusing on street demonstrations in Barcelona in September of 2017 and an outlawed referendum on independence 10 days later. Whether or not violence was used in those events has been a major bone of contention throughout the case, with defence lawyers insisting that the independence movement is by nature peaceful.

Suggesting otherwise is both “scandalously untrue and dishonest”, wrote Cuixart in an opinion article published in La Vanguardia newspaper at the weekend. “Non-violent action is not violence. Not here or anywhere.”

Another key issue in the trial has been the role of the Catalan police force, and whether or not they resisted or abetted the regional government’s plans to hold the controversial referendum. One of the trial’s biggest surprises was the assertion by the former Catalan police chief, Josep Lluís Trapero, that he was ready and willing to arrest separatist politicians following a unilateral independence declaration that was approved by the regional parliament.

Several of the accused have played down the significance of that declaration. For example, Meritxell Borràs, a former Catalan minister who faces charges of misuse of public funds and disobedience, testified that it was not an effective statement of secession but “a political declaration without legal or juridical consequences”.

The defence's case was indirectly bolstered last month when a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recommended that Spain immediately release Junqueras, Cuixart and Sànchez and pay them compensation. The group's findings fed into a broader claim by the independence movement that not only is the trial unfounded, but that it is based on a political premise and that the court case reflects glaring weaknesses in Spanish democracy.

"This is a political trial that has been presented as a legal one," says Gonzalo Boye, lawyer for the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who escaped the Spanish justice system by fleeing to Belgium.

“It says to me a lot about the lack of checks and balances that exist in the Spanish system.”

Territorial crisis

The Spanish government and judicial authorities take the opposing view.

Justice minister Dolores Delgado lauded “a trial held with all guarantees, with a level of transparency that puts us at the top of and in the vanguard of international judicial systems”.

This propaganda battle over Spain’s democratic credentials is expected to continue at least until the verdict is announced, probably in the autumn. Even then, the case is unlikely to be closed, with defendants expected to appeal to the constitutional court and then the European Court of Human Rights if they face an unfavourable verdict.

With a general election and European and local elections all taking place in the meantime, the trial has had an inevitable influence on Spain’s politics, helping to ensure that the Catalan territorial crisis has remained at the heart of political debate. The perceived injustice of the case and particularly the long spells of preventive custody for defendants have united and galvanised the independence movement, which blames the acting government of Socialist Pedro Sánchez for failing to rein in the judiciary.

“The Catalan government [and the independence movement] have spent months thinking about how to deal with this trauma and how to capitalise on the court verdict in a political way,” says Catalan writer Jordi Amat. “Without a doubt, for those affected this might be a tragedy but that tragedy could have political consequences.”

Catalan president Quim Torra has not ruled out calling a regional election once the verdict is announced in a bid to channel separatist outrage. However, a more familiar response will be seen this week when demonstrations are called across Catalonia to protest against the trial.