Catalans are set for a period of high tension as Spain’s Supreme Court considers its verdict in a case against 12 separatist leaders accused of rebellion and disobedience.
The four-month trial wrapped up in Madrid on Wednesday, having laid bare the country’s bitter divisions.
The Supreme Court scrutinised the separatists’ role in organising a referendum on the secession of the northeastern region of Catalonia from the Spanish state in October 2017.
“Voting … and defending the republic from a parliament can not be a crime,” Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s former vice president, told the court during closing remarks.
Nine of the defendants are charged with rebellion, including 50-year-old Junqueras, who risks 25 years in prison. The three other defendants face lesser charges of disobedience and misuse of public funds.
The court is expected to pronounce its decision in several months.
Supporters of the separatists say they are “political prisoners” repressed by the Spanish state.
Their opponents say they broke the law and put Spain’s unity in peril in the country’s worst political crisis since its transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s.
A former history professor, Junqueras was tasked as vice president with organising the 2017 vote, despite a court ban. Following the poll, which was marred by police violence, the majority-separatist Catalan parliament declared independence from Spain, and Madrid moved swiftly to remove the regional executive and arrest the referendum’s ringleaders.
“The events of October 2017 were a shock to everyone and few seem to relish the prospect of a repeat. However, there was a frequently uttered caveat: ‘as long as they release our political prisoners’,” Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, who reported from Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, at the time of the referendum, said.
“The verdict in the trial of 12 separatist figures could be pivotal. Either they will be acquitted and released, to be welcomed home as returning heroes by the estimated 47 percent of Catalans who desire independence, but who now see their project as settling into quiet abeyance. Or, Madrid’s Supreme Court returns guilty verdicts – which risk reigniting the tensions that brought Spain’s richest region to the brink of violent confrontation just eighteen months ago.”
Junqueras and his codefendants have been behind bars for more than a year and a half as the trial and the broader secession crisis in Catalonia continue to have an effect on national politics. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was forced to call an election in April after his budget failed to win parliamentary approval; Catalan representatives had refused to back it, partly in solidarity with those on trial.
“Many Catalans I spoke to during the snap elections at the end of April appeared to accept that the dream of independence cannot be realised quickly and that future Catalan governments should pursue a more considered policy of dialogue and, possibly, compromise with Madrid,” said Hull.
Pro-independence protesters in Barcelona called a demonstration to mark the end of the trial on Wednesday.
“This trial is a democratic anomaly,” said 25-year-old student Abel Vila, carrying the red-and-yellow Catalan flag.
Observers fear a return to the streets following the sentencing will ignite violence.
“No matter what it is, the sentence will be interpreted by the independence movement as an element to hold on to, to try to mobilise its camp again,” politics professor Oriol Bartomeus told AFP news agency.
He said the sentence could push Catalonia’s separatist-led government into calling snap regional elections or even “a reaction like disobedience”.
“The trial will have been useful to strengthen an independence movement that had been left without much horizon or road ahead,” he added.
Despite being in detention, Junqueras was elected to Spain’s national parliament in April’s general election along with four other fellow defendants. They were later suspended.
Junqueras was also elected to the European Parliament – and he says he hopes to keep that post, although how that will happen remains to be seen.
“I am being prosecuted for my ideas and not for my actions,” Junqueras told the court in February.
Prosecutors retorted that the defendants were on trial for having broken the law, not for their opinions.
One of the most controversial elements of the trial has been the charge of “rebellion” – a serious offence that implies a violent uprising.
Defence lawyers and pro-independence supporters insist there was no such violence.
The charges rest on “an account of events that does not correspond to the reality of what happened,” defence lawyer Marina Roig said on Wednesday.
Prosecutors say the defendants “fomented, favoured and sought direct confrontation between the crowds of citizens and police,” particularly on the day of the independence referendum.
On Tuesday, Junqueras’s lawyer Andreu Van den Eynde said there may have been “disobedience” – but never “rebellion”. He accused prosecutors of “bias and exaggeration”.
The trial’s chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza, however, has said the secession bid was a “coup d’etat” aimed at “wiping out the Spanish constitution”.