Trial on police leadership during 2017 referendum ends: was there collusion or proportionality?

Court will have to decide between convicting Trapero and others on sedition charges with up to 10-year sentences, finding them guilty with no time behind bars or an acquittal

Defendants in the trial against the former Catalan police leadership: Josep Lluís Trapero, Teresa Laplana, Pere Soler i César Puig (by EFE)
Defendants in the trial against the former Catalan police leadership: Josep Lluís Trapero, Teresa Laplana, Pere Soler i César Puig (by EFE) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

June 17, 2020 08:02 PM

Did the Catalan police help the October 1, 2017 independence referendum take place by not removing voters and polling stations? Or, rather, did the officers comply with Spain’s judicial orders issued a few days prior asking for "proportionality" and "caution"?

Was the former Catalan police chief, Josep Lluís Trapero, an ally of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, or was he actually prepared to arrest him? Should he be jailed for the same crime of sedition that the jailed pro-independence politicians and activists were sentenced for, be acquitted, or something in between?

All these questions have been discussed during a two-month trial – that spanned over five months due to Covid-19 – in Spain's national court that that came to an end on Wednesday.

The trial began with the prosecutor demanding 11-year sentences on rebellion charges for Trapero and two Catalan home affairs former officials, Cèsar Puig and Pere Soler, and ended with the request being lowered to 10-year sedition sentences while at the same time opening the door to an alternative sentence without time behind bars.

The prosecutor did not change the requested 4-year sentence on sedition charges for Teresa Laplana, a superintendent for the Catalan Mossos police at that time, after the trial that included some 100 witness testimonies.

Here's a quick guide to understanding the case and how the trial unfolded:

Did the Catalan police collaborate with the referendum organizers or the Spanish judiciary?

The Catalan high court asked the Mossos d'Esquadra as well as Spain's Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil for "patience, caution, and contention" while trying to prevent the referendum from taking place in a key meeting a few days prior – this was explained during the trial by a court legal secretary on March 4.

In their final remarks, the prosecution argued that the Mossos carried out "no legal action" to stop the vote and only "cynically pretended" to be complying with the courts.

Yet, during his hearing, Trapero said he had tried to comply with orders, but that it was impossible for 7,800 officers dispatched throughout the country to stop 2.3 million voters. "I can be blamed for everything, but the three police forces did not have enough reasons."

Was Trapero an ally of Puigdemont or was he ready to arrest him?

Trapero repeated one of his key statements he already brought up during the trial on the jailed pro-independence leaders: he had designed a plan to arrest Puigdemont in case he tried to declared independence and carried it out  – and he offered to personally arrest the former Catalan president.

He also maintained that he had never had any connection to Catalonia’s push for independence and that he considered the key independence push in Parliament to be "nonsense."

Yet, the prosecutor did not believe his plans to arrest the exiled politician on the grounds that he did not mention it in his hearing during the inquiry – and he also stated that the alleged plans to detain Puigdemont were made once Trapero was already under investigation.

Was there coordination between Spanish and Catalan police forces?

One of the key points throughout the trial has been the lack of coordination between the Catalan and Spanish law enforcement on October 1, 2017.

While some days prior the Catalan high court asked for coordination, at around 8am that Sunday the joint police operation was not working anymore.

Trapero said that having two officers in each police station was what had been agreed in the joint operation – and not charging at voters, as Spain's officers did –, and that it was the Spanish police that rejected the coordination.

While testifying as a witness, the man in charge of the Spanish police operation on referendum day, Diego Pérez de los Cobos, said they did not work together since they noticed the "inaction" of the Mossos – something also affirmed by the prosecution.

According to him, voters were "more violent" when they saw the Mossos' attitude.

Key September 20 demonstration – was there police inaction or caution?

On September 20, 2017, thousands of people rallied outside the Catalan economy department, which was being raided at the request of Spain's judiciary in an attempt to dismantle the referendum logistics.

Although nobody was arrested or injured, several Spanish police vehicles were damaged and the prosecutor believes protesters aimed to block the judicial operation – and that the Catalan police did nothing to avoid it.

Trapero said that they struggled to set up a cordon to let the legal public servants act because they had not "foreseen" the number of protesters as they had not been warned about the operation.

While the prosecutor criticized the permanent contact between the Mossos and the demonstrators suggesting collusion, Trapero and Laplana argued that the "mediation" prevented public order incidents.

Rebellion, sedition, disobedience or an acquittal? 

Trapero, Puig, and Soler began the trial being accused of rebellion, but these charges have been dropped as the referendum leaders were sentenced for sedition, a step below in the criminal code. 

They are now facing 10-year prison sentences for sedition, while Teresa Laplana also faces sedition but with a 4-year sentence. 

Yet, at the same time, the prosecutor opened the door to a milder conviction, not entailing prison in the event the magistrates see no sedition: disobedience charges, which would imply disqualification from public office, but no time behind bars. 

The defense asks for their acquittal.

“A citizen of a free society must not atone for errors that are not his or be the victim of the impotence and egoism of the state,” said Trapero’s lawyer, Olga Tubau, in tears during her final remarks on Wednesday.