(CN) — One year after Spain was plunged into a constitutional crisis by Catalonia’s declaration of independence, politically charged trials of imprisoned Catalan leaders accused of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds are approaching.
The trials will be conducted by Spain’s Supreme Court. Expected to begin in December or early next year, they have the potential to spark high drama and stoke tensions in a country riven by polarization and distrust of the court system’s independence from politics.
The trials risk inflaming passions in Catalonia as the drive to gain sovereignty is at a stalemate, and even losing steam.
“It keeps the embers burning,” said John Carlin, a British writer and journalist who lives in Barcelona, in a telephone interview.
The trials will take place in an atmosphere of distrust. The Spanish judiciary has long been accused of political partisanship because key judges are appointed by dominant political parties.
Ignasi Ribó, a Catalan political writer, voiced those concerns. He said many of the judges selected to conduct the trials were appointed by the conservative People's Party and “are strongly nationalistic and attached to pre-democratic” concepts of the state.
He foresees the judges handing down harsh sentences as a “form of deterrence and a punishment.”
“It will not be a fair process, but a witch trial,” he said in an email.
Others, though, have faith in the impartiality of Spanish judges.
“Spain is a state of law and the judges are independent,” said Wilhelm Hofmeister, director of the Spanish office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, in a telephone interview.
The impartiality of the judiciary, though, was marred in September when Spanish media reported on leaked emails showing judges referring to the Catalan independence leaders with derogatory terms and calling the referendum a “coup d’etat.”
Nine people facing trial are in prison. They include former Catalan government officials – the vice president Oriol Junqueras; a presidential candidate, Jordi Turull; the parliament speaker Carme Forcadell; four ministers, and two leaders of pro-independence civil society groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez.
A conviction for rebellion can bring a sentence of up to 30 years in prison. Prosecutors are expected to announce formal charges soon and may seek a lesser charge of sedition, which carries up to 15 years in prison.
The Spanish judiciary had sought to get six other Catalan politicians — most notably, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, the public face of the independence drive — extradited to Spain after they fled to other European countries.
They face charges in Spain, but their extraditions were halted after a federal German high court ruled in July that Puigdemont could not be sent back to Spain to face a charge of rebellion. The court said there was not enough evidence to support the charge.
Spanish authorities condemned the ruling and said a German court should not be interpreting a Spanish affair.
Hofmeister of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation agreed. He said the Spanish courts should be the ones to decide whether what happened in Catalonia amounted to a rebellion.
Spanish prosecutors brought the charges in connection with an independence referendum on Oct. 1, 2017, which Spain’s constitutional court ruled was illegal.