(CN) – A politically charged criminal trial of 12 Catalan independence leaders opened Tuesday in the Spanish capital of Madrid, riveting a nation consumed by political upheaval and division over Barcelona’s secessionist demands.
The trial, considered a watershed moment for Spain’s four-decade-old democracy, could end with long sentences meted out by the Supreme Court to leaders of a push to declare Catalonia an independent nation in the fall of 2017. The defendants face charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
The trial is buffeting Spanish politics and society as Catalonia’s drive for independence remains a source of contention.
Near the heavily guarded courthouse, protesters took to the streets with chants and carrying banners. Protests also blocked roads in Catalonia.
Inside the stately courtroom, a panel of seven Supreme Court judges opened the proceedings in a somber atmosphere Tuesday morning.
On four benches, the twelve defendants sat before the judges. On either side, black-robed lawyers and prosecutors were ranged. Principal leaders of the independence movement wore casual suits without ties and appeared relaxed.
The trial is being broadcast live in an effort to prove to the world that the trial will be fair. Outside legal groups, including Amnesty International, asked to be admitted as international monitors, but those requests were rejected. Spain’s judiciary, and by extension its democracy, is under intense scrutiny, with critics and the defendants alleging Spain’s courts lack independence.
This is a volatile moment for Spain. The ruling Socialist Workers’ Party may be forced to call snap elections after negotiations with Catalan pro-independence parties broke down Friday over a 2019 budget. The Socialists rely on the pro-independence parties to pass legislation.
A vote on the budget was expected Wednesday and failure to muster enough votes to pass a budget could lead to early general elections, possibly as early as April.
The Socialist government refused to offer concessions Catalan pro-independence parties were demanding, principally a legally binding independence referendum. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was not willing to go that far but offered to negotiate giving even more autonomy to Catalonia.
On Sunday, right-wing parties held a massive demonstration to speak out against Catalan independence and the Socialist government’s rapprochement with the secessionists. Those on the right oppose breaking up the Spanish nation and call the secessionists traitors who should be imprisoned.
With the trial stirring patriotic passions, early elections could lead to success for right-wing parties and even result in a far-right party, known as Vox, obtaining its first seats in Spain’s parliament.
Vox vehemently opposes Catalan independence and has pushed for criminal charges against the Catalan leaders. Vox is taking part in the trial too, representing the role of a “popular prosecution.” Under Spanish law, the state prosecutor does not have a monopoly over criminal proceedings and private individuals may take part, even if they are not directly affected by the crime in question. Vox seeks to send the secessionists to prison for much longer sentences than those sought by the state.
Vox did well in recent regional elections in Andalusia, a shock to many in Spain which had until recently not seen the rise of far-right sentiment gain traction as it has elsewhere in Europe.
Despite the threat of right-wing parties doing well in new elections, Catalan pro-independence parties are unlikely to have a “change of heart” and moderate their stances with the trial underway, said Antonio Barroso, a political analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a London-based political risk firm, in a briefing paper.
The trial is expected to last about three months and hear testimony from about 500 witnesses. Verdicts are not expected to be issued before late June.
Other independence leaders, most prominently Catalonia’s former President Carles Puigdemont, fled Spain to avoid facing charges. Other European nations have rejected Spain’s extradition requests.
Tuesday’s proceedings were taken up by opening statements by the defense.
Andreu Van den Eynde, a defense lawyer for the former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras and Raül Romeva, the former foreign affairs minister for Catalonia, argued that the defendants’ actions were peaceful and that political dissent is not a crime under Spain’s constitution.
The crime of rebellion, a charge that brings the harshest sentences, entails the use of violence. The trial is expected to examine in detail whether violence was involved in the rebellion. Prosecutors allege more than 100 police officers were injured.
Conversely, the defense argues police officers were responsible for the violence after they were sent in by the thousands to shut down polling stations and block voters from casting ballots during the Oct. 1 referendum, which was boycotted by opponents of independence.
Van den Eynde charged that the trial is a violation of the defendants’ human rights. “There is a right to protest,” he said. “This case is against the right to protest.”
He added: “The right to freedom of expression has been violated, the political arena is a free space, freedom of speech protects even those ideas that clash or offend.”
Junqueras faces up to 25 years in prison, which is the longest sentence sought by prosecutors. The other 11 defendants face sentences between seven and 17 years in prison.
In Catalonia, meanwhile, separate legal cases are being brought against other lower-level officials, including many mayors and police officials, who did not stop the referendum from taking place.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.