Chris Bambery – Spain: How many lies does it take to destroy democracy?

Week 8 of the trial of leaders of the Catalan independence movement in Spain. This lengthy piece with its many details gives a feeling for the perversity of this trial.

Chris Bambery is author and broadcaster. Co-author (with George Kerevan) of Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco (Luath Press, June 2018)

BRAVE NEW EUROPE is probably the independent international medium that has covered the Catalan Independence movement the most. It has provided the Catalan cause a platform to communicate with the rest of Europe, as well as posted many original articles on the topic. If this is the sort of media you wish to read and support, then please donate  here.

“Music parties, pyjama parties, night time hot chocolate parties,” these were the unlikely tools to create a “pre-revolutionary atmosphere” in Catalonia in the autumn of 2017 a senior Spanish police officer told the Spanish Supreme Court last week.

In case you are wondering if you blinked at the time and missed the news of a revolutionary crisis in Catalonia back then, don’t worry, you didn’t. What took place wasn’t Paris 1789 or Petrograd 1917, except perhaps in the heated imaginations of senior Spanish police officers.

The chief of the Spanish National Police’s High Command’s information, Manuel Quintela, was the first witness last week in the trial of Catalan leaders charged with “rebellion” and “sedition.” The Spanish National Police is the direct descendant of General Franco’s urban riot squads.

The “pre-revolutionary atmosphere” he witnessed when officers raided a polling station on 1 October 2017, the day of the Catalan independence referendum, to seize ballot boxes, registers and ballot papers culminated in one unfortunate police officer being “hit on the head with a ballot box”. When asked if this was a widespread reaction he state no, it wasn’t widespread.

In contrast he justified the Spanish police firing rubber bullets, banned in Catalonia, which resulted in one man, Roger Español losing an eye. This took place he explained as they tried to depart from the polling station:

“They tried to knock them out. When they were exiting with the material they were pursued for metres and in this complicated departure they started firing of rubber bullets and one caused injuries to a hostile demonstrator who, by the way, was in the front row and made five direct attacks against police agents”.

He added that the officer in charge attended to the man when he had a heart attack.

Quintela also claimed that the then Catalan Education Minister, Clara Ponsati, now in exile in Scotland after a Spanish attempt to extradite here collapsed was outside her local polling station “directing the resistance to the police operation” at her polling station. Quintela said there were 72 Spanish police officers injured that day

Describing a Spanish police raid on the head office of the radical left Catalan Popular Unity party Quintela said that they had been “violently attacked” by protesters. The raid, on 20 September 2017, in the build up to the referendum was at the request of the Spanish Public Prosecutor because “propaganda” in support of the referendum had been detected there.

This might not be surprising as the CUP openly advocates Catalan independence and its representatives in the Catalan Parliament and in local government are elected on that platform.

According to Quintela the response of the Spanish police was “meticulously measured” but after the initially “festive” protest became aggressive, they had “surrounded” and been forced to fire “blank shots in order to get out.”

Returning to events on 1 October he accused the Catalan Police, the Mossos, of being “passive” and of “hindering” the work of the Spanish Police before adding that they were “great professionals.”

He also reported “harassment” by protesters at the hotels where Spanish Police were billeted these were “serious incidents.”

A Catalan police officer accused one of the accused, Jordi Cuixart, President of the largest Catalan cultural organisation, Omnium, of having “undermined” the work of local police when they attempted to confiscate publicity material for the referendum. This incident took place in Badalona, on the outskirts of Barcelona.

The officer alleged Cuixart put himself in front of the police vehicle taking the material away. This included 45 posters with slogans such as ‘Hello Republic’, ‘Hello New Country’ and ‘Hello Europe’, despite the Mayor of Badalona telling them they required judicial permission to take them.

“Then Jordi Cuixart came with a local councillor,” the officer added: “He suggested to me that we could turn a blind eye to it.” The officer told the councillor not to remove the posters from the truck but he ignored him and did so. Cuixart then helped distribute them.

The officer went on to describe “a tense situation” but admitted Cuixart did not insult police officers, and that the posters did not have Catalan Government logo on them and they did not mention the 1 October referendum. 

Previously a Barcelona Provincial Court had closed the case brought against the councillor who removed the posters from the boot of the vehicle.

On Wednesday morning Ferran López gave testimony. He was then the deputy chief of the Mossos and replaced the then head of police, Ferran López, when he was removed by the Spanish Government as it took direct control of Catalonia following the Catalan Government’s declaration of independence.

López told the court that “The Catalan police never collaborated either in the preparation or in the execution of the referendum.” He then added that the Mossos had “attempted to comply with the judicial order [of the Spanish Constitutional Court banning the referendum].”

Continuing, he explained that the Mossos command had expressed “concern” to then president Carles Puigdemont about the referendum, and that Trapero had asked Catalan government leaders to “comply with the judicial orders and not to hold the referendum.” He also said that the then Home Affairs Minister, Joaquim Forn “was reacting in the opposite way to us.” referencing Joaquim Forn, who is on trial, who he said made the “mistake” of pledging the vote would go ahead.

Regarding the actions of Mossos on election day he gave a very different picture of their actions than that of earlier Spanish Police witnesses saying they were deployed at 2,300 polling stations, had orders to close them at the best time (when fewer people were present) and that they seized  423 ballot boxes, 90,000 ballot papers, and 60,000 envelopes.

López denied accusations from Spanish Police officers that the Mossos had failed to support them saying that they had refused to share information and of breaking off the coordinated police operation on the day of the referendum; adding that the Catalan Police were always “loyal” to Diego Pérez de los Cobos, the Guardia Civil colonel in charge of co-ordinating the actions of the different Spanish and Catalan forces on 1 October. All of this was in contradiction of Pérez de los Cobos’s earlier testimony.

When it came to the turn of the former deputy chief of the Mossos d’Esquadra, Juan Carlos Molinero, to testify he also gave an entirely different account of what the Mossos did than that of his Spanish counter-parts.

He stated that the Mossos “never” kept tabs on Spanish police “either during the referendum or at any other moment,” and dismissed earlier allegations as “totally false.”

Most importantly Molinero said clearly that Diego Pérez de los Cobos—the Spanish Guardia Civil colonel in charge of coordinating the operation to stop the independence referendum—”never objected to the Mossos operation planned for October 1.”

This contradicted earlier claims that the Catalan police refused to fully co-operate with the operation.

Regarding one of the accused, the former Catalan interior minister Joaquim Forn Molinero, Molinero said that Forn told the Mossos leadership that he “would not meddle in the police operation during the October 1 referendum.”

He was then asked by Forn’s lawyer whether the former minister’s statements that the referendum would go ahead after it was banned by the Spanish Constitutional Court had “modified” the Mossos’ actions on 1 October 2017, Molinero answered: “Not at all.”

Like the others Forn is accused of “rebellion” which means the prosecution has to prove the incited violence and insurrection.

Molinero’s testimony, and that of Ferran López (his superior officer) earlier contradict a number of statements made previously by Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos, the Spanish  Civil Guard officer who co-ordinated the police operation to stop the referendum)  such as his statement that he was unaware of the Mossos’ operational plans for 1 October, that Mossos did not co-ordinate their operations with Spanish Police and that on 1 October communication between Mossos and the Civil Guard and Spanish National Police broke down.

Following Molinero’s testimony Civil Guard officers continued to give evidence anonymously, presenting a vividly different version of what happened in Catalonia on referendum day.

So one officer asserted that “all people [at the polling station] had a violent attitude,” and criticized the “passive” behaviour of the Catalan police as Spanish Police were “attacked.” He further claimed that he had not attacked any protesters and that he did not see any of his colleagues do so.

Another Civil Guard officer described how he was punched in the mouth by a voter adding: “They stole my helmet, I was kicked and scraped.”

Meanwhile the Spanish Public Prosecutor has joined in a lawsuit brought by Spanish Unified Police Union (SUP) to reopen the investigation against 36 people who voted on 1 October 2017.  

This lawsuit, presented at a Barcelona court, followed the 36 pressing charges against Spanish police officers over events at four polling stations. The SUP charges allege they obstructed police actions.

The Spanish Public Prosecutor is only pursuing action against nine of the 36, unlike the Spanish Solicitor General who earlier joined the SUP in seeking in investigation into all 36.

These are political appointees of the outgoing Socialist Government, Pedro Sanchéz.

The Catalan president Quim Torra announced that the Catalan government will oppose the lawsuit, telling the 36 accused voters,  “The Catalan government will always be by your side.”

President Torra hiself is now facing legal action in the Spanish courts after the Spanish Electoral Commission alleges he failed to be quick enough to remove banners and symbols in support of the Catalan political prisoners and exiles from Government buildings.

Meanwhile two international observers of the Madrid trial have expressed their concerns over proceedings.

Professor Bill Bowring, of Birkbeck College Law Department part of  the University of London who has observed political trials in Russia, Turkey and a dozen countries said that he expected the 12 defendants to be convicted and described the charges  of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds as “disproportionate”.

Speaking in Barcelona, Professor Bowring stated that he would be “very surprised” if a guilty verdict did not result in an appeal to the European Court in Strasbourg, on the grounds of an unfair trial:

“My impression is that the judge is very much looking over his shoulder at the European Court of Human Rights in case there’s a future application, as there’s likely to be,” Professor Bowring said.

“One of the problems with Strasbourg is that it isn’t quick,” he continued, adding: “Six years is quick. Ten or 12 years is not uncommon. I expect the appeal will go through, but we’ll still be waiting for the hearing in 2029.”

He explained:

“Charging the accused with such serious offenses seems disproportionate, but also a serious potential block on freedom of expression and freedom of association. There seemed to be no questions being asked by the state prosecutor relating to violence, which is an essential ingredient of rebellion.”

Professor Bowring had observed the early stages of the trial and reported that the presiding judge had been “doing things correctly.” the lawyer expressed underlying concern about the implications of the charges.

Another international observer, Katrín Oddsdóttir, a human rights lawyer who in 2011 helped draw up Iceland’s new constitution, stated that the trial was “political” and that she had said this at a meeting on Wednesday with Spain’s Attorney General. She was part of a delegation from International Trial Watch, a group which broadly supports the 12 accused. The Technical Secretary of the Attorney General’s Office, Fernando Rodríguez Rey, rejected her suggestion that the trial also threatened the defendants’ human rights. Nevertheless the ITW described the meeting as “positive.”

Oddsdóttir said that she had not expected Rodríguez to agree, as “it would be a catastrophe if he ever acknowledged that,” but wanted to point out that “from the outside, it’s the way it looks.”

 She also raised the fact that the presiding judge had prevented the defence team showing videos of events on and around referendum day saying

“It’s strange that the prosecutor doesn’t team up with the defence in asking for the videos to be shown.”

The response from Rodríguez was that this would “harm both the prosecution and the defence.” But he added, “Spain’s best interests [are] to know the truth of this whole thing”

The response back from Oddsdóttir was that such evidence is valid, and that it is in “Spain’s best interests to know the truth of this whole thing,” but that “I have the feeling that the prosecutor is more interested in getting convictions, which is not very good at all.”

She went on to argue that the Prosecution is using the Spanish constitution “in a one-way manner” particularly in regards to the charges of rebellion and sedition:

“They are strongly building on it in regards to this being a rebellion, but what about the other rights in the same constitution? Like the right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of assembly?”

The trial will continue next week before breaking up for Easter. Nine of the accused will spend that holiday in preventative detention in Madrid prisons, 1000 km from friends and families, although five who are candidates in the upcoming Spanish and European elections have asked to be released so they can campaign. I would not hold my breath about that!

So we will live in a topsy turvy world where the prosecution, backed up the Spanish Government, presents a picture of a violent rebellion in Catalonia in the autumn of 2017, while what the world saw on the day of the referendum was Spanish paramilitary police smashing their way into polling stations to seize ballot boxes and batoning those waiting to vote and those protesting peacefully against them. Interestingly there is growing concern over the trial among not just human rights lawyers but politicians in the French, British, German, Belgian and Portuguese Parliaments and the Spanish authorities are clearly rattled

Last week Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell appeared on Deutsche Welle TV’s Conflict Zone where he was asked “How fair are the trials of Catalan pro-independence politicians?”

When pressed by veteran presenter Tim Sebastian, Borrell accused him of “continuously lying” and walked out of the interview.  He returned after a short discussion with his aides.


BRAVE NEW EUROPE is probably the independent international medium that has covered the Catalan Independence movement the most. It has provided the Catalan cause a platform to communicate with the rest of Europe, as well as posted many original articles on the topic. If this is the sort of media you wish to read and support, then please donate  here.





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