The unanswered questions of the Catalan trial as verdict looms
The upcoming verdict from the Supreme Court should shed light on a series of contested accusations
Two years ago, Catalonia—and to no lesser extent, Spain—underwent one of its most turbulent months in decades. Take note: a referendum on independence, held despite Spain’s opposition; the police operation that tried to stop it, injuring hundreds; a declaration of independence, and the subsequent suspension of Catalonia’s self-rule from Madrid; finally, the imprisonment and exile of pro-independence leaders.
Ever since then, Catalonia—and to no lesser extent, Spain—has been unable to turn the page on the month of October, 2017.
In the coming days, Spain's Supreme Court will issue its long-awaited verdict on the 12 politicians and activists held responsible for the 2017 independence push—at least those who didn’t go into exile.
The verdict, which if guilty could carry lengthy prison terms for the accused, will certainly mark a turning point in the Catalan independence conflict. What comes next, time will soon tell.
After four months of hearings, the independence trial at the Supreme Court left many questions unanswered, and two irreconcilable narratives emerged explaining what happened in October 2017.
What sentences will the accused get?
Out of the 12 Catalan leaders in the dock, nine have been held in pre-trial detention and are still behind bars to this day. Next Wednesday will mark two years since activists Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez became the first two pro-independence leaders to be sent to prison without bail.
The Supreme Court verdict could either put an end to the ongoing detentions, as lawyers demanded, or could extend them further, as proposed by prosecutors.
Spain’s attorney general requested sentences ranging from 7 to 25 years in prison, the longest one for Oriol Junqueras, the Catalan vice president at the time of the referendum, and the leader of the Esquerra (ERC) party.
While the solicitor general proposed prison sentences of up to 12 years, the far-right Vox party, acting as a private prosecutor, requested 74-year prison terms.
The charges proposed by the different prosecutors include rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, disobedience, and organized crime.
Was the independence bid peaceful or violent?
This is perhaps the most consequential dilemma Supreme Court judges faced while discussing the verdict. It’s also the most controversial.
In their final statements, prosecutors referred to the 2017 vote and the subsequent declaration of independence as a "coup d'état," in which the Catalan government resorted to violence in its plot to break away from Spain.
In contrast, the accused maintained that they always stayed true to the peaceful nature of the independence movement, and didn’t offer any resistance when Madrid sacked them from power and imposed direct rule.
With rebellion being the most serious accusation against the pro-independence leaders, the use of violence is an indispensable element to issue a conviction for such a crime.
Catalan police: loyal to Spain or Catalan independence?
In the run-up to the referendum, a Catalan court ordered police to close down polling stations to prevent the vote from taking place, while maintaining the peace.
Catalonia’s own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, closed a number of voting places, but didn’t resort to force when pro-independence activists didn’t voluntarily leave polling stations. In contrast, Spanish police cracked down on voters, injuring more than a thousand, according to Catalan government figures.
"I defended the referendum as a politician, but told Catalan police to follow court orders"
Joaquim Forn · Former interior minister
Prosecutors accused Catalan police of following the independence roadmap and facilitating the vote, supporting their claims with testimony from Spanish police officers and officials.
The politicians on trial dismissed the accusations.
The interior minister at the time, Joaquim Forn, said in court that while he defended the referendum as a politician, he always told the Mossos to follow court orders.
The head of the Catalan police at the time, Josep Lluís Trapero, appeared as a witness to reject prosecutors’ accusations, insisting that he always remained loyal to the Spanish authorities, and even said that he had a plan to arrest the then-president, Carles Puigdemont, if needed.
Sànchez & Cuixart: protest instigators or pacifiers?
As the heads of Catalonia’s two largest pro-independence organizations, activists Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez were two key actors in the 2017 independence bid.
They were sent to prison on October 16—not for their role during the referendum, but for a series of protests that took place in the run-up to the vote, on September 20.
Prosecutors believe that Cuixart and Sànchez instructed pro-independence supporters to thwart a police operation aimed at dismantling preparations for the vote, as thousands of protesters gathered for hours outside the building were the raids were taking place.
Yet, the two activists stress that they didn’t act as instigators, but as pacifiers, thus protecting the right to protest of citizens while cooperating with the Spanish police to avoid any incidents.
Speaker Forcadell: protector or foe of lawmakers’ rights?
Carme Forcadell was the speaker of the Catalan parliament when the chamber voted for the laws setting a legal framework for the transition towards an independent Catalonia.
While prosecutors accuse her of undermining lawmakers’ rights by speeding up the approval process of the bills, defense teams maintain that she acted to protect freedom of expression and the right of MPs to discuss any matter in the chamber.
Did defendants get a fair trial?
During the proceedings, the Supreme Court and judges themselves were put in the spotlight by defense lawyers, who accused them of undermining their clients right to a defense.
The courtroom president, Manuel Marchena, was criticized for not letting lawyers show videos during the cross-examination of witnesses, alleging that it would extend the trial unnecessarily.
Will prison sentences be unavoidable?
Some pro-independence leaders have already spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention—time that will be deducted from their final sentences if they are eventually convicted.
After spending some time in jail, the Spanish criminal system allows for prisoners to temporarily leave prison while still spending a number of hours behind bars if judges believe that the inmate deserves it.
The public prosecutor has requested that the Supreme Court impose a restriction so that the accused must complete at least half their sentences before they’re allowed to temporarily leave jail. Judges will have the last say on the matter.
Cost of the referendum for taxpayers?
On referendum day, hundreds of ballot boxes and thousands of ballot papers appeared at polling stations. But how was the referendum funded? After four months of proceedings, this question remains unanswered.
While a less serious offence than rebellion, many defendants are also accused of misuse of public funds, an offence that also carries a number of years in prison.
Defense teams maintain that the Catalan government didn’t spend a single euro on organizing the vote, and stopped all attempts to purchase referendum material when the vote was suspended by Spanish courts.
In contrast, the public prosecutor believes that €3.03 million were embezzled to pay for the independence bid, and demand that the accused pay it back.