A three-month trial began on Tuesday in Madrid for twelve Catalan separatists who staged a failed 2017 independence referendum. The accused include Catalonia’s former vice president and other regional officials, and they stand charged with rebellion, sedition, and the misuse of public funds, facing 25 years in prison if convicted.
The 2017 illegal referendum for Catalonian independence was taken up by the then-government of Catalonia. Only 43 percent of Catalans participated, as those supporting Madrid largely boycotted the referendum. However, 90 percent of those who voted supported independence. Though unsuccessful and illegal, the movement served to bring attention to the issue of Catalonian independence from Spain.
The trial is the first of its kind since Spain returned to democratic leadership in 1975. Critics are appealing to the European Union for clemency for the arrested officials, despite the EU’s support of Spain against Catalonian secession. Catalan activists have begun a “propaganda war” online to portray the trial as evidence that the Spanish government is non-democratic and has lost the rule of law. Spain’s central government has responded with videos avowing the strength of its democracy.
While European officials have sided with Madrid, agreeing that rule of law is functioning in Spain, the activist campaign has succeeded in raising questions about Spanish democracy. The issue is complicated by the Spanish prime minister’s relationship to Catalan separatist factions, with whom he aligned in order to take power against the majority right-wing government. The Catalan factions now feel betrayed by Prime Minister Sánchez, and their lack of support may prevent his budget from passing in Spanish parliament on Wednesday.
Catalan separatists in court for Spain’s ‘most important’ trial since returning to democracy
MADRID — Twelve Catalan separatists went on trial Tuesday in Madrid for staging a failed 2017 independence referendum that triggered a constitutional crisis and exposed rifts in a nation’s identity.
The historic trial is unprecedented in the history of modern Spain, which only returned to democracy in 1975, following the death of the right-wing dictator Francisco Franco. The trial of the Catalan separatists is the “most important” since then, Carlos Lesmes, the president of Spain’s Supreme Court, told reporters.
The 12 separatists — including Catalonia’s former vice president and other regional officials — stand accused of rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds. If convicted, they could face as much as 25 years in prison.
In October 2017, they staged an illegal independence referendum in open defiance of Madrid. Most polls at the time suggested that Catalans were evenly split on the question of secession, and the pro-independence parties had never been able to win a majority in the Catalan parliament.
Catalonia’s then-government went forward with the unilateral referendum, and, according to their results, 90 percent of those who voted supported independence. But only about 43 percent of Catalans participated, with most of those who supported Madrid boycotting the exercise.
Catalonia’s current government has appealed to the European Union — which supported Madrid during the 2017 referendum crisis — for clemency for the arrested officials. Even those who did not share the aim of regional independence saw it as a dangerous precedent for Spain and Europe.
“Although I am not an independence supporter, nor do I share many of the decisions of the previous Catalan government, I believe that this trial is a political fiasco, placing the space for dialogue and negotiation in danger,” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau wrote in a letter to E.U. leadership. “If the trial ends in guilty verdicts and sentences, it will not help to reassess Catalonia’s position within Spain, but it will instead serve to exacerbate division.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has also attempted to allay concerns in the E.U., going to Strasbourg last week to visit what the Spanish government called “the two institutions that best represent and guarantee human rights and democracy in Europe — the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.”
What has transpired since — largely on the Internet — is a “propaganda war” launched by Catalan activists who have attempted to portray the trial as evidence that the rule of law somehow no longer applies in Spain, said William Chislett, a political analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid-based think tank.
Spain’s central government has been on the defensive in recent weeks, writing off the outrage over the Catalan trial as a “disinformation campaign.” To that end, Madrid released a short video campaign in December entitled “This is the Real Spain,” a one-minute, 54 second parade of Spanish and international celebrities venerating a “great democracy.”
The actor Richard Gere, pianist and composer Daniel Barenboim and Michelin-starred chef José Andrés all have brief cameo appearances.
European officials have entirely sided with Madrid, as they did during the 2017 referendum.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, said last week that the commission had “no criticism” of the functioning of the rule of law, democracy or human rights in Spain, when he was questioned by Catalan secessionist members of the European parliament.
But the Catalans have still made an impact with their campaign. “The pro-independence side of the trial has been more active and more successful in putting across their message,” Chislett said. “Their attempts to say that Spain is not democratic have not worked. But they raised a question mark, which has done damage.”
Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan leader who fled Spain in late October 2017 and has remained in Belgium ever since, continued fanning the flames from Berlin on Tuesday, in a news conference designed to coincide with the start of the trial.
“Democracies around the world must be inspired by the Catalan struggle for democracy. And the image of our civil and political leaders on trial concerns all who live in a stronger democracy,” he said. “I want to ask the European Union institutions why the European Union is more concerned for what is going on in Venezuela than what is happening in Madrid today?”
The trial could have important repercussions in Spanish politics beyond the question of Catalan independence.
Sánchez, a Socialist, became Spain’s prime minister in June 2018, several months after the referendum crisis. But his is a minority government, and Sánchez was only able to take power by aligning with Catalan separatist factions that opposed the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy, who had led Madrid’s opposition to Catalan independence.
Given the trial, some of these Catalan factions have said they feel betrayed, and Sánchez needs their support to pass his 2019 budget in the Spanish parliament on Wednesday. Meanwhile, his opponents on the political right have seized the opportunity to attack a position of weakness, with tens of thousands marching Sunday in Madrid to demand snap elections if he fails to pass his budget.
“The strange alliance that brought Sánchez to power was always going to crumble at some point, and as far as the Catalans are concerned, it’s payback time,” Chislett, the analyst, said. He noted, however, that a potential failure by Sánchez to pass the new budget would not automatically trigger elections, and that the previous year’s budget could in theory be temporarily rolled over into the new year, as has happened before.
The trial is slated to last approximately three months.
Source: The Washington Post, Jennifer Green and James McAuley, Feb.12, 2019. Photo credit to Emilio Naranjo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock.