Catalan independence: Democracy on trial in Spain

The defendants face the Supreme Court in Madrid (Emilio Naranjo/AP)

There were reasonable grounds for hoping, 15 months ago, that the Catalan separatist leaders jailed and awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and sedition would be freed while a new Spanish government dependent on supply and confidence agreements with Basque and Catalan MPs got on with the essential business of trying to negotiate its way out of the crisis that threatens Spain’s democracy. 

That hope was shattered when Madrid made it clear that the breakaway leaders arrested after the province’s independence referendum would remain behind bars, and then set about its unsuccessful extradition attempts to get three remaining “ring leaders” back from exile in Belgium, Germany and Scotland.

The next chapter in this depressing march of folly began this week with the opening of the trial of a dozen secessionist leaders and, if the judges return guilty verdicts on nine of the defendants, with the public prosecutor asking for prison terms of up to 25 years. 

Whether the trial, expected to last for three months, will be judged fair according to the standards expected in Western democracies remains to be seen.

It’s being televised, which raises the question: is this open justice or a show trial? And what of the judges? 

To what extent will they be influenced by Spain’s king, who as a constitutional monarch should keep his nose out of such matters but who has accused the Catalan secessionists of attempting to break “the unity of Spain”? 

Will their minds be open or closed? 

If the latter, the headlines in Catalan’s pro-independence newspapers might be familiar to readers who have followed Britain’s Brexit debate: Enemies of the people!

The question being tested in Madrid is relatively simple: is organising a referendum a crime? 

By the court’s answer, we shall know Spain.

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