A lawyer for two of the 12 Catalan separatist leaders on trial in Madrid has dismissed the case against them as politically motivated and a “procedural vaudeville”.
The dozen defendants appeared at the supreme court on Tuesday to stand trial over their alleged roles in the regional independence crisis that pitched Spain into its worst political turmoil for four decades.
Described as the “most important trial since Spain’s return to democracy” following Franco’s death, the proceedings will investigate the parts senior politicians and civil society group leaders played in the run-up to the independence referendum in October 2017 and the subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.
Nine of the defendants – who include the former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell and two influential grassroots activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez – are accused of rebellion, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years. Other charges include sedition and the misuse of public funds.
Junqueras’ lawyer, Andreu Van den Eynde, told the court that prosecutors were trying to criminalise displays of freedom of expression and argued that the defendants had the right to defend the idea of self-determination.
He added: “No international or EU law blocks the secession of a regional entity; self-determination is synonymous with peace and not war.”
Van den Eynde, who is also representing the former Catalan foreign minister, Raül Romeva, said his clients’ right to freedom of expression had been violated. “The political arena is a free space,” he said. “Freedom of expression extends even to those ideas that shock and offend.”
He dismissed the complicated legal process as a “procedural vaudeville” and said it was intended to put Catalan independence itself on trial.
The accused, most of whom were dressed in sober suits, sat in rows of three on four purple benches in the courtroom as the charges were read to them. Opposite them sat the seven judges who are presiding over the case in the ornate courtroom, while close by were the defendants’ lawyers. Journalists from all over the world followed the case from the courtroom or two overflow rooms set up at the supreme court.
The proceedings, which began on 12 February, are presided over by seven supreme court judges, and are expected to last around three months. The court will sit for three days a week – Tuesdays to Thursdays – from 10am to 6pm.
Hundreds of witnesses are to be called, among them the former Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, his former deputy, Soraya Sáez de Santamaría, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, the former Catalan president Artur Mas and the current speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent.
The court has ruled that Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who led the push for independence before fleeing into self-imposed exile, will not be allowed to testify via videolink from Belgium.
Other witnesses will include some of the Catalan voters and Spanish police officers injured on the day of the referendum.
The verdict in the case, which is likely to be delivered in June, could be appealed by the defendants in Spain’s constitutional court. The next step after that would be an appeal to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.
Sam Jones in Madrid
The trial, which began shortly after 10.20am on Tuesday and is being broadcast on television, is expected to last three months. Proceedings will focus on the then Catalan government’s decision to hold the referendum despite repeated warnings that it would violate the constitution, which stresses the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
Although Catalan pro-independence parties have never managed to win 50% of the vote in the regional parliament, and although polls consistently show Catalonia is roughly evenly split over the independence issue, the government of the then Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, chose to press ahead with the vote.
Pro-independence parties managed to get a law paving the way for the referendum passed in the regional parliament in early September 2017, despite furious objections from opposition MPs, who complained that usual procedures had been disregarded.
Three weeks later, on 1 October, the Catalan government held the referendum, which was marred by violence as Spanish police officers raided polling stations, charged crowds with batons and fired rubber bullets as they tried to stop the vote.
According to the Catalan government, about 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters – 43% – took part in the referendum, and about 90% of participants backed independence. The vote was largely boycotted by unionist Catalans.
On 27 October, shortly after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to declare independence, the Spanish government of the then prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, won senate backing to sack Puigdemont and his cabinet and assume direct control of Catalonia.
Defence lawyers will seek to undermine the rebellion charges. They will point out that, under Spanish law, rebellion consists of “revolting violently and publicly”, and argue that none of those charged with the offence engaged in violence.
Speaking to the Guardian and a small group of other European reporters in Madrid on the eve of the trial, the Catalan president, Quim Torra, hit out at the charges.
“The only violence we saw throughout September and October was from the Spanish police,” he said.
“They tried to stop citizens from going to vote peacefully on 1 October. But this has all been turned on its head. There was no violence, everyone saw there was no violence.”
The case will once again bring international attention to the enduring tensions between the Madrid government and the pro-independence regional government of Catalonia.
The president of the supreme court, Carlos Lesmes, has described the proceedings as “the most important trial that we’ve held since democracy [returned]”. But on Monday night, Torra said: “As far as we’re concerned, Spanish justice has pretty much zero credibility.”
The Catalan president arrived at the court in central Madrid just before 9.15am. He was heckled by two people who shouted: “Coup perpetrator!” A heavy police presence of officers and vans ringed the supreme court as proceedings began.
The start of the trial led some Catalan pro-independence protesters to briefly block several roads before dawn, setting fire to tyres and holding up traffic.
Protests have been called in Barcelona at 7pm.