Spain's trial on Catalan independence leaders is widening its political divides
Updated: Apr 9
It was a year and a half ago this month that Catalans voted to break away from Spain and create the Republic of Catalonia. That is almost the same amount of time most of the political leaders who orchestrated that vote have been in custody, charged with rebellion, sedition and embezzlement offences.
On 1 October 2017, an independence referendum was held despite being deemed illegal by the Spanish government. Shortly after, the unilateral independence of Catalonia was declared, causing the worst constitutional crisis in Spain since its transition to democracy in the 1970s.
Today, the vote is still controversial. The 12 Catalan leaders face a combined total of almost 200 years in prison if they are given maximum sentences in 'the trial of the century', as often described by the Spanish media. The trial, seen by some as a 'stress test for Spanish democracy', has enraged many pro-independence supporters, who claim that their heroes are political prisoners.
Last month, a mass rally against the trial was held in Madrid, with protesters carrying banners that read 'self-determination is not a crime' or 'free the political prisoners'.
Sergi Asensio, a pro-independence mayoral candidate and affiliate of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s party, Together for Catalonia, argues that the trial is a farce, ruled by political objectives.
“They are being tried for their ideas, the outcome is already written,” he says. “This trial is a punishment for the Catalan people to end demands for independence, but it has caused the opposite reaction.”
At the other end of the spectrum, constitutionalists disagree. “Calling them political prisoners would be to trivialise those who really are political prisoners,” says Yeray Mellado, voice of the only association of young constitutionalists in Catalonia, It’s Over.
“These gentlemen are not political prisoners, they are part of a criminal organisation whose only objective is to break the constitutional unity of Spain,” says Angel Escolano, president of the constitutionalist Catalan Civic Coexistence Association. “They are not political prisoners, they are politicians who are imprisoned for the serious crimes they have committed.”
The trial has sparked many human rights concerns among the international community, which has brought the Spanish state under intense scrutiny. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have asked for the immediate release of the pro-independence civil society leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sees the charges as 'excessive' and has asked to be present during the trial to guarantee its fairness. However, neither of the organisations has labelled the accused as 'political prisoners'.
“The essence of this trial is to criminalise the exercise of civil and political rights,” says John Philpot, international criminal law expert and international observer of the trial for International Trial Watch.
“Criminalising non-violent political action and threatening long prison sentences is shameful for the Spanish state. The issues should be settled by political negotiation and not by vicious repression,” says the defence lawyer. “There is no chance of a fair trial for the Catalan leaders.”
Spain was ranked among the world’s 20 full democracies by the Economist's 2018 Democratic Index. However, upon the start of the court proceedings, the International Commission of Jurists denounced the trial for unduly restricting rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Hadi Cin, member of the European Democratic Lawyers Association and international observer of the trial, says: “The Spanish state has turned fundamental democratic rights into crime. This political problem should not be solved by suppressing the Catalan leaders’ fundamental rights.”
Mellado, on the other hand, describes the Catalan separatists as 'coup plotters' and says that they are the ones who are "stealing the constitutional rights of the rest of Spaniards". He argues that the only legitimate, constitutional, legal and democratic way to solve this conflict is to comply with the law.
Whether Catalonia should have the right to self-determination or not has been one of the key talking points in the independence crisis and its subsequent trial. Many pro-independence supporters have condemned the Spanish government for not giving them consent to hold a referendum like the UK government did to Scotland.
“Scots represent a nation within the UK, with an implicit right to self-determination. For this reason, Prime Minister David Cameron enabled the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum that would be beyond legal doubt,” says Nicola McEwen, co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change and professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.
“On the contrary, the Spanish Constitution declares that the Spanish nation is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards. Though the Constitution as a whole is sufficiently ambiguous to be open to multiple interpretations of the national question, it has been used to suppress the independence movement in Catalonia,” says McEwen.