A dozen politicians and activists on trial for their failed bid in 2017 to carve out an independent Catalan republic in northeastern Spain will deliver their final statements Wednesday as four months of hearings draw to an end.
A verdict isn’t expected for months but, whichever way it goes, it could set the course for the Catalan secession movement and the tone of Spain’s national politics for years to come.
What’s the trial about?
Since mid-February, the trial at Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid has heard testimony from more than 500 witnesses and seen hours of videos from protests that included a police crackdown. It all played out before a live television audience as prosecutors accused the defendants of attempting a coup.
The case covers the months leading up to a banned secession referendum on October 1, 2017, and its aftermath, when separatist lawmakers declared victory and independence, but received no international recognition. The Spanish government dissolved Catalonia’s parliament, removed the region’s Cabinet from office and transferred their duties to Madrid.
The separatists on trial include ex-Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras; activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez, activist Jordi Cuixart and the former speaker of Catalonia’s regional parliament, Carme Forcadell.
The other six men and two women were members of the ousted Cabinet in the wealthy northeastern region.
What are they facing?
The defendants have become a powerful symbol for separatists, who see their pre-trial jailing for more than 18 months as unfair. The court says they represent a flight risk because former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and others fled from Spain and have successfully fought extradition.
After more than 50 hearings, state prosecutors in the case are upholding their proposed 25-year sentence for Junqueras if he is convicted of rebellion, which under Spanish law requires proving that violence was used to disrupt the country’s constitutional order. Cuixart, Sanchez and Forcadell face 17 years in prison if they are found guilty.
“We have to call things by their proper name,” Supreme Court prosecutor Javier Zaragoza said last week delivering his final statement. “What the accused were aiming for was a coup d’etat.”
Divisions over severity of punishment
While a far-right party that has played a key role as one of the prosecuting parties has called for harsher sentences, state attorneys who represent the government against the defendants dropped the more serious rebellion charge when a new center-left administration seeking dialogue with Catalan separatists replaced the conservatives last year.
In direct contrast with the public prosecutors, who represent the public interest, state attorneys are calling for a conviction on sedition charges, which could lower prison terms.
On Tuesday, during their final statements, most defense lawyers said their clients should be instead found guilty of disobedience, if anything, which could mean fines and a possible ban from holding public office.
The defendants are also accused of misusing public funds to hold the referendum.
Why has the trial gripped the nation?
People across Spain, and even more earnestly in Catalonia, have followed proceedings for the past few months like a soap opera or a soccer tournament. Analysis of hearings in the media has been amplified with all sorts of comments on social networks.
The publicity has played to both the Catalan separatists, who had wanted to use the trial to present their leaders as political scapegoats in a malfunctioning democracy, as well as a platform to advocate for Catalan self-determination.
The Spanish judiciary has said since the hearings are being broadcast live, it’s allowing the public to scrutinise due process and that transparency will eventually pay off by showing that its decisions are independent from the executive branch.
A star judge is born
The magistrate presiding over the panel of seven judges in the case has become a divisive figure, vilified by many separatists while at the same time popular for skillfully carrying the weight of a trial that is testing the judicial system as a whole.
In proceedings, Manuel Marchena has performed a difficult balancing act between courtesy and firmness, flexibility and leniency, while reprimanding all sides at one time or another — sometimes doing it full of irony.
When defense lawyers proposed Puigdemont as a witness, the 59-year-old responded that one “can’t be a witness in the morning and a defendant in the afternoon”.
At the same time, Marchena has also kept the far-right Vox party on a short leash during the prosecution, while telling off prosecutors for not knowing the exact date and locations of videos presented as evidence.
On the political front, tensions between the regional Catalan administration and Spain’s government have receded, but haven’t fully gone away.
No verdict is expected until at least September and the sentences could trigger a new election in Catalonia.
The defendants are already anticipating a lengthy appeals process and warned that they will take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if they exhaust all options in Spain.
In addition, both Junqueras and Puigdemont _who isn’t being tried in the case but remains a fugitive in Spain_ have won seats in the European Parliament, although they face legal hurdles to be sworn in as lawmakers.