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A referendum, an independence bid, and the many trials that ensued

A guide to the judicial cases, the courts, the charges, and the defendants

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25 March 2021 06:00 PM

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ACN | Barcelona

If you follow Catalan News, chances are that you'll have heard about what we called the 'Catalan Trial,' which saw some of Catalonia's top politicians in the dock for calling a referendum and trying to split from Spain in 2017.

And yet, referring to this case as the 'Catalan Trial' can be misleading because there are several other judicial proceedings in different courts investigating Catalonia's push for independence, as well as its far-reaching consequences, with other defendants too.

According to civil society group Òmnium Cultural, there are 2,850 people who in the past years have suffered retaliation from Spain—be it exile, prion, or prosecutionfor their role in Catalonia's push for independence.

Here's a quick guide to the different cases.

Last updated March 25, 2021, 17:13 CET

The trial that marked a turning point in Catalan-Spanish relations

Pro-independence leaders on trial at Spain's Supreme Court (by EFE)Spain’s Supreme Court (TS)

Defendants: In all, 12 people were in the dock during the trial hearings, including some of Catalonia’s most senior politicians at the time of the 2017 independence bid, such as vice president Oriol Junqueras. Nine of them were ministers in the government of Carles Puigdemont, who would also be on trial had he not chosen to go into exile in Belgium. The accused also included Carme Forcadell, who served as the parliament speaker, as well as Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, the activists leading Catalonia's main pro-independence grassroots organizations at the time of the referendum. 

Nine of the accused were held in preventive detention for most of the process, despite calls for their release from human rights groups and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. Arrested on October 16, 2017, Sànchez and Cuixart had spent nearly two years in pre-trial jail by the time the trial started.

Verdict: Nine of the leaders were found guilty of sedition, a criminal offense prosecuting "tumultuous uprisings to impede the enforcement of the law." They were cleared of the most serious accusation of violent rebellion. Three former ministers were additionally convicted of misuse of public funds and another three escaped sedition charges but were found guilty of disobedience.

Prison terms for those found guilty of sedition ranged from 9 years for Cuixart and Sànchez to 13 years for Junqueras, with bans from public office of equal duration. The three ministers convicted of disobedience —Carles Mundó, Meritxell Budó, and Santi Vila— were disqualified for 20 months.

Stage: Trial over, verdict announced. After 52 sessions spanning over four months and testimony from 422 witnesses, the trial ended in June 2019. When the ruling was announced the following month of October, widespread protests and altercations erupted in Barcelona and several Catalan cities and towns. Catalan president Quim Torra described the verdict as "an act of vengeance, not of justice". Pro-independence leaders are currently serving their sentences while awaiting the Constitutional Court's response to their appeal—a necessary step before being able to take their case to the European Court of Humans Right in Strasbourg. 

Exiled leaders facing extradition requests

Supreme Court and Catalan High Court

Defendants: The Supreme Court has also an open case against six other Catalan leaders who went in exile to avoid being tried in Spain, including the former president Carles Puigdemont, some of his former ministers, and ERC's senior official Marta Rovira. The former CUP MP Anna Gabriel, in Switzerland, is also facing a case in the Catalan High Court.  

Charges: Puigdemont, his former health minister Toni Comín, and his former education minister Clara Ponsatí face extradition requests for sedition and misuse of public funds. Former culture minister Lluís Puig faces an extradition request for misuse of funds and disobedience. The other three politicians in exile do not have extradition warrants but arrest warrants if they ever set a foot in Spain again.

Stage: The extradition requests for Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí, were put on hold when all three of them took office as MEPs in early 2020 as they were entitled to parliamentary immunity. Although they are still currently MEPs, the European Parliament recently voted to strip them of their immunity.

This does not automatically restart the extradition process, however, as Spain is looking to avoid the obstacles encountered when attempting to force Lluís Puig, who is not an MEP and has never had parliamentary immunity in Europe, to return to face trial. 

Lluís Puig won his case in August after Belgium rejected handing him in, but the Belgian public prosecutor appealed the court's decision – the politician is awaiting a decision on the appeal.

Spain has tried to extradite some of the pro-independence leaders abroad three times but each attempt has been unsuccessful. 

A spin-off featuring former parliament bureau members

The former members of the Catalan parliament bureau, with speaker Carme Forcadell in the center (by Rafa Garrido)Spain's High Court in Catalonia (TSJC)

Defendants: Pro-independence leaders tried in Spain's Supreme Court repeatedly requested their case be moved to the Catalan High Court, invoking the right to the natural judge. The Supreme Court admitted the request, but only for six of them: five former members of the parliament bureau and former MP from the far-left CUP party, Mireia Boya. 

As the former chamber speaker and head of the parliament bureau, Forcaell criticized the Supreme Court for not transferring her case along with that of her colleagues.

Charges: All six defendants were charged with the offense of disobedience for allowing laws enabling independence to be voted on and approved by Catalan lawmakers. Boya, along with Anna Gabriel who avoided prosecution by moving to Switzerland, is being charged for registering the initial proposal.

Stage: Lluís Corominas, Anna Simó, Lluís Guinó, and Ramona Barrufet were handed down a 20-month ban from office on October 19, and fined 30,000 euros each. Mireia Boya, was cleared of all charges. The court concluded that she did not play a role in the actions for which her colleagues were sentenced as she did not have a position that would have allowed her to intervene against voting on the measures and because she did not receive a warning from the Constitutional Court either.

The trial of Joan Josep Nuet, who was also a parliament bureau member at the time, took place on the 24 and 25 of March 2021. As an MP in Congress for Esquerra Republicana, his case had to be handled by Spain’s Supreme Court. Nuet was also found guilty of disobedience, and he was handed an 8-month ban from holding public office as well as a €12,000 fine.

The Catalan police leadership on trial

Catalonia's former police chief Josep Lluís Trapero arrives in Spain's National Court (by Javier Barbancho)Spain's National Court

Defendants: Catalan police chief at the time of the independence bid, Josep Lluís Trapero is among four former heads of police being prosecuted in Spain's National Court. The Mossos d'Esquadra police are accused of aiding the independence bid, with their inaction not preventing the referendum from taking place and by their handling of the protests during Spanish police raids on September 20.

Charges: Trapero, another head of Mossos, and a former interior ministry official are charged by the public prosecutor with sedition and face up to 10 years in prison. Initial charges of rebellion were lowered following the cross-examination of witnesses. Another head of police who has also been accused of sedition risks a four-year jail term if found guilty.

Stage: Trapero and the rest of the former Catalan police leadership were acquitted of wrongdoing on October 21, 2020. The trial ended in June 2020, following two months of hearings that spanned over five months due to the pandemic.

30 people on trial over referendum logistics

Saül Gordillo, the director of the Catalan public radio (right), leaves the Barcelona local court (by Pol Solà)Local Barcelona court

Defendants: A court in Barcelona is also prosecuting some 30 people indicted over the independence bid, specifically for contributing to the logistics and organization of the October 1, 2017 referendum. The defendants include government officials and employees, civil servants, media workers, technicians, and business people. Among those indicted are the Diplocat diplomacy council's former president, the former secretary of public information, and the former Catalan government delegate to the EU.

Charges: The defendants face a variety of charges, such as misuse of public funds, disobedience, deceit, revealing secrets, and perversion of justice. Until the trial takes place, those accused have been released on a 5.8 million euro bail.

Stage: The court ended the investigation phase on September 10, 2020, but the trial's opening date is yet to be announced.

Referendum trials featuring police officers, voters, mayors, among others

Spanish police officers deployed in Girona to stop the referendum on October 1, 2017 (by Marina López)

All across Catalonia, different courts are handling other cases looking into the events surrounding the 2017 referendum and the role played by its many protagonists.

Police: Dozens of police and Guardia Civil officers are under investigation following reports of excessive use of force, with some 50 agents prosecuted in Barcelona's court number 7.

Junqueras' right-hand men: The first Catalan government officials detained in the run-up to the referendum, Lluís Salvadó, and Josep Maria Jové, were indicted by the Catalan High Court and are awaiting trial for handling preparations for the vote as vice president Junqueras' right-hand men.

Mayors: A number of Catalan mayors were in the spotlight for facilitating the referendum being held in their hometowns. Such is the case of Bernat Solé, currently serving as Catalonia's foreign action minister, formerly the mayor of Agramunt, in western Catalonia. He was tried by the Catalan High Court in December and, a month later, he was barred from office for a year and given a €16,800 fine in a ruling that can be appealed. The former president of the Catalan Association of Municipalities (ACM), Miquel Buch, who would go on to serve as interior minister, is also under investigation.

Voters: Scores of referendum voters present at polling stations on the day of the referendum have been identified by police and are pending judicial proceedings. The most notorious might be that of Jordi Pesarrodona, a clown and local councilor from the Catalan town of Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, who was found guilty of disobedience and banned from public office for 14 months for a picture standing next to a police officer wearing his clown nose.

Referendum electoral board: when the law enabling was passed in parliament on September 7, 2017, a five-member board to monitor the vote was also approved. A few days later, Spain's Constitutional Court threatened them with a daily fine if they continued in their posts. The government accepted giving up the idea of a referendum monitoring authority. Yet, their members faced trial on November 4 and 5, 2020, with requested sentences of 2 years and 9 months in jail for disobedience and overtaking of public office. A verdict is pending.

Beyond the 2017 referendum, other trials on Catalan independence

Catalan president Quim Torra abandons the government headquarters surrounded by protesters after being banned from office (by Mariona Puig)

While there are several judicial cases looking into the referendum push and its protagonists, the 2017 events had far-reaching consequences, leading to years of political and social turbulence that, in turn, produced new judicial proceedings.

Ousted Catalan president: Since coming to power in 2018, Quim Torra's presidency was marked by the very same circumstances that led to his unlikely rise to office: namely, the imprisonment and exile of Catalonia's political leaders. His unwillingness to remove yellow ribbons and other signs in solidarity with the jailed leaders of the 2017 referendum bid from the government headquarters' façade eventually led to his removal from office for disobedience on September 28, 2020.

Former parliament speaker Torrent: The Catalan High Court is investigating ex parliament speaker Roger Torrent and three of his former chamber bureau colleagues, Josep Costa, Eusebi Campdepadrós, and Adriana Delgado, for disobedience for allowing MPs to vote on motions against the Spanish monarchy and in support of Catalonia’s self-determination in the fall of 2019. If found guilty, they could be barred from holding public office for a number of years.

CDR activists: The Committees in Defense of the Republic (CRD), a decentralized network of pro-independence protest groups responsible for civil disobedience actions, has seen some of its members arrested on severe accusations, like terrorism. Such is the case of Tamara Carrasco, who remained confined to her hometown of Viladecans for over a year, and later faced trial for the less serious offense of inciting public disorder.

Democratic Tsunami protest at AP-7 highway: The sentencing of Catalan leaders for sedition in October 2018 led to widespread protests all across Catalonia, some of which were directed by a secret organization named Democratic Tsunami. Along with the occupation of the Barcelona airport, one of the biggest protest actions consisted in blocking off the AP-7 highway at the French border, for which 196 people are under investigation.

Madrid protester sentenced to prison: After spending a year and one month in pre-trial jail, the 23-year old Dani Gallardo was sentenced by the Madrid regional court to 4.5 years in prison, convicted for public disorders and an attack on a police officer during the 2019 altercations against the imprisonment of Catalan independence leaders in the Spanish capital. He denied the attack and even taking part in the protest.

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  • The defendants during the trial on the 2017 independence referendum, February 12, 2019 (EFE Pool)

  • The defendants during the trial on the 2017 independence referendum, February 12, 2019 (EFE Pool)

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