President in the dock: what you need to know

Quim Torra will become the first Catalan head of government to face trial in almost 80 years when he appears in court on November 18

Catalan president Quim Torra in the Catalan parliament (by Guillem Roset)
Catalan president Quim Torra in the Catalan parliament (by Guillem Roset) / ACN

Neil Stokes | Barcelona

November 17, 2019 02:36 PM

November 18 will see the first sitting Catalan president in the dock since Lluís Companys was tried in 1940 by the Franco regime following the Spanish Civil War.

Fortunately, Quim Torra will not face the awful fate that awaited Companys should he be found guilty (Companys was shot by firing squad), but he does risk being barred from office.

If you are wondering why the Catalan president has been summoned to defend himself against charges of disobedience in Spain's high court in Catalonia, the TSJC, then read on.

What is Torra charged with?

The president is being prosecuted for failing to comply in time with an order from the Electoral Board to remove symbols from the front of the government building in Barcelona in the run-up to the Spanish general election at the end of April.

What were these symbols?

Basically, yellow ribbons, which have become the symbol showing solidarity with the Catalan leaders tried and sentenced to prison by the Supreme Court over the bid to split from Spain in 2017. After they were arrested in the aftermath of the unilateral independence referendum in autumn 2017, people sympathetic with their cause (they spent some two years in custody before being given jail terms of between 9 and 13 years on October 14, while others are in exile and risk arrest if they return) have worn yellow ribbons or hung them from buildings, including many public buildings.

But why order them removed? It's a free country, isn't it?

Well, that was Torra's argument when he initially refused to take the symbols down, claiming the order infringed the right to freedom of expression. But the Electoral Board, whose job is to monitor and supervise elections in Spain, found the symbols to be political and described them as "partisan."

You say "initially refused." So he did take them down eventually?

Yes, but by the time Torra ordered the symbols to be taken down, the deadline set by the Electoral Board had already passed. In a show of defiance, the president had the yellow ribbon banner replaced by another defending the right to freedom of expression. In fact, the same thing happened again before the November 10 election, although this particular case goes back to April.

And the Electoral Board didn't like that and so took him to court?

Not exactly. Quim Torra heads a government made up of MPs from Catalonia's main pro-independence parties, Esquerra Republicana and Junts per Catalunya. They are not much liked by the unionist parties in the Catalan parliament, and two of these - PP and Cs - made official complaints to the board, which decided to launch a suit against Torra. In March, the public prosecutor assessed the case and decided to press charges, accusing the president of disobedience and calling for him to be barred from holding public office for a year and eight months and to pay a fine of 30,000 euros.

Sounds like 'a storm in a teacup'. Why didn't the court just dismiss the case?

That's what many people thought would happen, including Torra's lawyers. However, the judge overseeing the preliminary hearings decided the accusations had legs and so admitted the case for trial. 

How did Torra react to that?

He wasn't very happy about it, I'm sure. In a preliminary hearing on May 15, Torra defended his decision to defy the board's order, saying "I owe a debt to a higher public mandate to defend human rights." The response from the president's lawyers in July was to call for the recusal of the judge overseeing the preliminary hearings, arguing that he is "clearly prejudiced," affecting Torra's presumption of innocence The request was denied and a date for the trial was set for late September, and then later postponed until November 18.

Is there no way the president can avoid a court appearance?

Not really, but his lawyers did challenge the fitness of the judges assigned to oversee the trial - Jesús María Barrientos and Mercedes Armas - accusing them of "a glaring lack of impartiality". They duly stepped aside while Torra's recusal request was considered.

Wow, that's a lot of information!

I haven't finished; there's more.

I'm going to regret this, but go on.

The judge considering the recusal request was the same judge Torra's lawyers objected to during the preliminary hearings. So, they made another request to have Carlos Ramos replaced, arguing that he had a "direct or indirect interest" in the case and that he also has "close ties" to the Catalan Socialists, the unionist party that originally nominated him in parliament for the position in the TSJC.

So, let's see if I have this right: Torra requested the recusal of the judge he said should be recused in July who considered the recusal of the judges assigned to oversee the trial?


So, how did that end up?

The recusal requests were turned down.

After all that?

You're new around here, aren't you?

But whichever judge hears the case, it sounds like Torra will most likely end up with a ban.

Not necessarily. The TSJC’s future verdict will not be final, as the president will be able to appeal it before the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court? The judges who decided on the future of the jailed Catalan leaders that Torra was supporting with the banner that started all of this?

Hey, you're catching on! Don't you just love politics?

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