Spain’s judicial case against Catalan independence explained

Supreme Court investigates 28 officials and activists in Catalonia, including Carles Puigdemont and four leaders in prison

From left to right: vice president Oriol Junqueras, president Carles Puigdemont and former Parliament president Carme Forcadell in a rally on October 21 to demand the release of imprisoned Catalan leaders (by Rafa Garrido)
From left to right: vice president Oriol Junqueras, president Carles Puigdemont and former Parliament president Carme Forcadell in a rally on October 21 to demand the release of imprisoned Catalan leaders (by Rafa Garrido) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

January 31, 2018 06:15 PM

Catalonia’s defiance of Spain might have reached a temporary stalemate with the postponement of Carles Puigdemont’s reinstatement as president, but the judicial case against pro-independence leaders continues to move forward.

On Wednesday, the Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena continued to take witness statements from the Catalan ministers who resigned before the government called a referendum on independence in September. While some told the judge that they left their posts due to personal reasons, others dismissed their former colleagues as “irresponsible” for pursuing independence despite Spain’s opposition.

The court could eventually bar from office 28 key figures in the Catalan independence movement who are under investigation, a Spanish newspaper reported. The accused include president Puigdemont, currently in Belgium along with four of his ministers, and four imprisoned leaders. In total, 12 people have been held behind bars at some point during the investigation.

The defendants face criminal charges for their role in the political process that concluded with a declaration of independence in October—which was suspended by the Constitutional Court and which prompted the Spanish government to suspend Catalonia’s self-rule.

Protesters holding “Freedom political prisoners” signs in Sant Jaume square in Barcelona (by Andrea Zamorano)

The accused are charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. The first, one of the most serious articles in the Spanish criminal code, carries prison sentences of up to 30 years. Yet, it has been highly contested whether rebellion charges apply to Catalonia’s attempts to secede from Spain, as the use of violence is a prerequisite for triggering the article—and pro-independence parties have repeatedly stressed that they have only used peaceful means to achieve their political goals.

Reports say the judge’s decision to suspend the defendants based on the rebellion charge could come as early as March. That could sweep away an entire generation of Catalan leaders who have posed an unprecedented challenge to Spain’s unity, encompassing government members, MPs and grassroots activists. And some might even end up in prison.

Twelve Catalan leaders have been in prison

On October 16, Spain’s National Court preemptively imprisoned Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, the presidents of two civil society organizations that had a leading role in calling mass pro-independence demonstrations in recent years. Spain’s Attorney General—who filed the charges in the first place—accused them of urging protesters to block a police operation aimed at thwarting the logistics of the forthcoming referendum.

The two activists, who are still held behind bars, became the first in a long list of jailed Catalan leaders. On November 2, the same court imprisoned seven government members who, unlike Puigdemont, stayed in Catalonia after the declaration of independence. Although most of them were subsequently released on bail, two are still being held behind bars: vice president Oriol Junqueras and Home Affairs minister Joaquim Forn.

The Supreme Court, which eventually took over the case, dismissed all appeals for release by the four imprisoned leaders. All of them except Junqueras made a point of renouncing unilateral means to achieve independence, thus notably abandoning the political strategy that first led to the declaration of independence.

Six Catalan Parliament bureau members are also being investigated for allowing the contested vote on October 27, which put the referendum results into effect. All are free on bail. The former head of the chamber, Carme Forcadell, was released on €150,000 bail after spending a night in prison.

Case broadened to include six more politicians

In December, judge Llarena broadened the case to include six politicians with a prominent role in Catalan politics, such as former president Artur Mas. Marta Rovira, Junqueras’ second in command in the Esquerra Republicana party, is also being investigated, as are Anna Gabriel and Mireia Boya, two former MPs for the far-left CUP party. Marta Pascal, the PDeCAT's leader, is also investigated, along with Neus Lloveras, a former MP for the same party. 

Boya and Gabriel are summoned to appear in court on February 14, while Rovira and Pascal will testify on the Spanish Supreme Court on February 19, with Mas and Neus Lloveras the day after.