(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.
In a controversial move, Spain’s conservative government sent in thousands of police officers to forcibly remove voters and shut down the referendum. Voters were hit with batons and police fired rubber bullets on demonstrators.
Although the voting and protests by Catalans were seen as nonviolent, the government and courts accused the Catalan leaders of fomenting a rebellion and misusing public funds in holding the vote.
Òmnium Cultural, whose leader Cuixart is facing trial, said in a statement to Courthouse News that it questioned how fair the trials will be.
The group called into doubt the process for selecting the trial judges and the denial of a right to appeal the Supreme Court ruling. The group called that “a basic right in all legal ordinances of democratic states.”
The Spanish state prosecutor’s office did not return a message seeking comment.
Many Spanish legal scholars have questioned charging the independence leaders with rebellion, which they say must entail acts of violence.
Òmnium said violence has been absent throughout the years-long effort to gain independence.
Recent protests marking the anniversary of the referendum saw some protesters clash with police. Riot police were doused in paint bombs too.
The drive to obtain a sovereign state has divided people inside Catalonia. Opinion polls show Catalonia’s population — which is made up of many Spaniards who moved to Catalonia for work — is evenly split on the issue. The opposition parties in the Catalan parliament urged their supporters to not participate in the referendum.
Now the trials are poised to take Spain, and with it Europe, into uncharted territory. Prosecuting high-profile — and, for many, even hallowed — political figures for rebellion is unlike anything Western Europe has witnessed in recent memory. It seems like a page taken from Europe’s political upheavals in the 1800s.
The trials are likely to spark political drama, protests and new crises in a country that’s become deeply polarized as it deals not only with Catalonia’s emboldened drive to become a separate and independent republic but also with its fascist past, a scandal-ridden monarchy and fracturing national politics.
Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain with Barcelona at its core. It is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, with a long history of rivalry with the capital of Madrid, seat of Spain’s central government and monarchy.
The push to gain independence grew after Spain’s constitutional court in 2010 struck down portions of a statute on autonomy passed by Catalan’s parliament that declared the Catalans a nationality.
Many Catalans have long harbored animosity toward Spanish authorities after their regional language was banned during the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Many still feel that their history, language and customs are devalued in Spain.
There is also resentment among Catalans over a perception that they’re financially sustaining poorer parts of Spain. Catalonia contributes more in taxes than it receives in return from the government.
Since last year’s referendum, much has changed, though.
After the referendum the Catalan parliament was dissolved by Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish president and leader of the conservative People’s Party. He took an aggressive anti-independence stance, but his government collapsed in May in a corruption scandal.
The new Spanish government, headed by President Pedro Sanchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, has opened talks with the new Catalan leadership, which remains pro-independence.
“Sanchez is far more open to dialogue and discussion,” Carlin said.
He said Sanchez’s strategy is the right one to slow or even stop the drive for independence. “That’s the right approach if you are trying to stop the train from reaching its destination,” Carlin said.
In the meantime, Carlin said the alliance of separatist parties in Catalonia has begun to crack. “They are tearing themselves apart,” he said.
Still, it appears the independence movement isn’t going away any time soon and there’s little hope for a quick solution.
“The political situation in Catalonia is in a deadlock,” said Ignacio Jurado, a professor of politics at the University of York.
“My expectation is that this will continue for a while.”
For Ribó, harsh sentences meted out at the trials have the potential to derail negotiations with the Sanchez government.
One idea to ease tensions is to allow Catalonia to hold a legally binding referendum on independence, as Scotland did. But that appears unlikely to happen.
In a statement, the main opposition party in Catalonia, the center-right Citizens (Ciudadanos) party, said the continued press for independence is damaging.
Ciudadanos said it is leaving “a society fractured and a continuing damage to the economy and the external image of Catalonia and its main asset and flagship, Barcelona.”