Catalan separatists' rebellion trial starts in Madrid

by Laurence BOUTREUX and Alvaro VILLALOBOS
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The vice-president of Spain's Senate concluded that Catalan leader Raul Romeva (C, pictured February 2019) had to be automatically suspended since he is in jail

Catalan separatist leaders accused of rebellion for trying to make their region independent from Spain launched their defence on Tuesday at the start of a long-awaited trial.

Sitting on benches in the ornate chamber of Madrid's Supreme Court, the defendants faced a row of judges and a Spanish flag in proceedings broadcast live on television.

Twelve defendants are in the dock over an independence referendum, held on October 1, 2017, in defiance of a court ban, and a short-lived declaration of independence.

Nine of them are charged with rebellion and three face lesser charges of disobedience and misuse of public funds.

The independence bid sparked Spain's deepest political crisis since the transition to democracy in the 1970s after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

"This case targets political dissidence," said Andreu Van den Eynde, the lawyer for two defendants including Catalonia's former vice president Oriol Junqueras, who could face up to 25 years in jail.

- 'Nothing to hide' -

Spain has been forced to defend its judiciary against criticism.

In a rare move, Spanish embassies in several European capitals and further afield briefed reporters on Monday and Tuesday, handing out a file entitled "12 falsehoods about Spain" to refute common separatist claims such as the lack of impartiality of all judges.

"These people aren't there (on trial) because of what they think but because of what they did," said Jorge Notivoli Marin, Spain's charge d'affaires in Brussels.

"It's very important for us to show that we're a country that has nothing to hide, that follows the law and procedure."

Many Spaniards support the trial, shocked by the actions of Catalonia's regional executive in October 2017.

But separatists in Catalonia have dismissed the trial as a politically-motivated "farce".

On Tuesday evening in central Barcelona, some 6,000 people, many waving Catalan separatist flags, protested against the opening of the trial, municipal police said.

Similar protests were held in other Catalan cities including Girona and Tarragona.

- Puigdemont absent -

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's former president who fled Spain days after the independence declaration on October 27, is not among the defendants.

Spain does not try suspects in absentia for major offences.

Speaking from Berlin, Puigdemont said the trial was "a stress test for Spanish democracy".

His successor, Quim Torra, who travelled to Madrid for the start of the proceedings, said it was "a trial that never should take place in a state that wants to be considered democratic."

In Puigdemont's absence, the trial's main protagonist is his former deputy Junqueras, who opted to remain in Spain.

The 11 other defendants include members of Catalonia's former executive, the two leaders of powerful pro-independence associations, ANC and Omnium Cultural, and the former president of the Catalan parliament. They could face jail terms of seven to 17 years.

The nine defendants charged with rebellion have been in pre-trial detention for months, some of them for more than a year.

- Was it rebellion? -

Controversy has swirled over the charge of rebellion.

Under Spanish law, rebellion is defined as "rising up in a violent and public manner". But opinion is divided over whether the independence bid was violent.

Prosecutors say the defendants "called on citizens to participate in the October 1 referendum knowing it was illegal and that explosions of violence could therefore take place".

But supporters of independence deny violence actually occurred.

They accuse the police of brutality during the referendum.

Carles Mundo, one of the defendants, told AFP in court it was "absurd."

"The violence needed to justify these offences didn't happen, as everyone was able to see, nor did misuse of public funds."

Hundreds of witnesses have been called to testify, including former conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy who was in office at the time of the Catalan referendum.

The trial is scheduled to last three months, with verdicts expected several months later.

- Early elections? -

The Catalonia question continues to fan political tension.

The opposition accuses Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of "high treason" over his negotiations with Catalan separatists.

Sanchez, a Socialist who came to power in June with the support of Catalan nationalist parties, has tried to defuse the situation by resuming talks with the separatists, but those broke down on Friday.

Now the Catalan separatist parties have vowed to block the goverment's 2019 budget during a parliamentary vote on Wednesday, opening the door for Sanchez to possibly call an early general election.

The former Catalan separatist leaders went on trial in Madrid for their 2017 independence bid

People take part in a demonstration in Barcelona against the trial of former Catalan separatist leaders

Catalan police dispersed students who blocked a street in Barcelona in protest at the trial of the former separatist leaders

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont called the trial of his pro-independence allies a "stress test for Spanish democracy"

Judges in Madrid are hearing the case against the Catalan separatists in a trial that has stirred criticism of the Spanish judiciary