Chris Bambery – Spain’s Judicial Proceedings against Catalan Leaders: A Diary of a Show Trial

If you have bothered to follow this event, it has, as predicted, become a veritable show trial. The judges are all political appointees of the right. The result has been clear since the beginning. The real question is how the European Court of Justice will react to the appeals. If the support the Spanish post-fascist political establishment, they will lose credibility as a democratic institution. If they decide for the Catalan leaders, there will be a major rupture between  the EU and Spain, especially with the current rise of its far right movements.

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 media 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.

Twelve Catalan leaders, 10 politicians and two leaders of the two biggest civic organisations in Catalonia, are entering their fourth week of trial before the Spanish Supreme Court on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. These relate to events leading up to the 1 October 2017 Catalan independence referendum, events on polling day and the subsequent vote in the Catalan Parliament on the declaration of independence and creation of a Catalan Republic.

The trial has attracted widespread media coverage and has been attended by legal international observers and a large number of Parliamentarians from across Europe. The international observers are not allowed access to the Court as such and have to join the public queue early in the morning to do so.

The crux of the case rests on allegations of rebellion and sedition, which carry charges of up to 25 years, what the prosecution is asking former Deputy President, Oriol Junqueras, to serve if found guilty.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) published its concerns regarding these charges on 12 February 2019

It states that:

“The very broad definition of the offence of rebellion being applied in this case risks unnecessary and disproportionate interference with rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly. The twelve political leaders… have been charged in connection with their part in the administration on 1 October 2017 of a referendum on Catalonian independence. The referendum was conducted despite having been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court. The voting process during the referendum was partially suppressed by the police, with credible reports of the use of unnecessary and disproportionate force in breach of Spain’s international law obligations.”

The ICJ goes on to say:

“Interference with peaceful political expression and protest must be justified as strictly necessary and proportionate under international human rights law. Where peaceful protests or political actions, even if declared unlawful by the authorities, provoke an excessive response by the police, it is solely the police and other state authorities who should be held responsible for the violence. It is crucial that the Supreme Court, in its consideration of these charges, takes full account of Spain’s obligations under international human rights law.”

The body points out that in bringing forward the case the Supreme Court has ascribed an “unduly broad meaning” to the offence of rebellion. Under Article 472 of Spain’s Criminal Code rebellion is defined as being violent insurrection to subvert Spain’s constitutional order.

The 12 are not accused of using or advocating violence but of failing to foresee the intervention by the Spanish police and their use of force. Consequently, it is argued, they are criminally responsible for the violence because they chose to carry on with the independence referendum after it was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court.

The Supreme Court holds that the use of force by Spanish law security forces in an effort to stop that referendum were a consequence of the accused’s’ actions in allowing the referendum to proceed. The charges of sedition which rests on the accused being found guilty of rising up publically, in a tumultuous way, by use of force or by pursuing unlawful means to prevent the implementation of the law or the orders of the authorities.

The ICJ concludes:

“Vague, broadly defined offences of sedition or rebellion risk violation of the principle of legality, as well as arbitrary and disproportionate interference with human rights. In a highly sensitive and politicised case such as that of the Catalonian referendum, they would set a dangerous precedent for the targeting of peaceful independence movements and political dissent, not only in Spain but internationally.

Several of the accused have already been held in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods, further exacerbating the severity of the interference with rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and casting doubt on the proportionality of the response.”

The trial of the 12 centres very much on very different accounts as who was responsible for violence in the build up to the 1 October referendum and on the day itself.

Week three of the trial saw two defendants rise to the occasion. The first was Jordi Cuixart, President of Omnium, the premier Catalan language and cultural organisation, and Carme Forcadell, former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament. I must note that I have visited both in prison where they were held awaiting trial, Jordi for 16 months, Carme for nine, and also helped organise her visit to the House of Commons in Britain in 2017.

First up was Cuixart who described himself as a political prisoner and responded forcefully regarding accusations he was responsible for citing violence saying:

“The only violence produced on October 1 was done by the [Spanish National] police and the Civil Guard. […] The modern Catalan movement has never used violence, but we will always defend democracy by showing our disagreement with attacks on the headquarters of our government and parties.”

He was then questioned about demonstrations called on 20 September 2017 by Omnium and the Catalan National Assembly in response by the Spanish police raid on the Catalan Finance Ministry.

On damage done to the Civil Guard cars Cuixart responded: “I get irritated when things are broken, whether they’re mine or not, and I made it clear that same day that I didn’t support the behaviour of damaging the Civil Guard cars.”

In answer to the prosecutor’s suggestion that he should have called the demonstration off: “The right to demonstrate can’t be questioned and if there was no violence, why should I have called it off?”

He was then asked why he and then ANC President,  Jordi Sànchez (also on trial) spoke to the crowd from the roof of a Civil Guard car he pointed out that the two men had already called for the demonstration to end at midnight] “but since many people were telling us they hadn’t heard us we had to climb onto the Civil Guard car to get the message across.”

Asked about the decision to proceed with the referendum after the referendum law passed by the Catalan Parliament had been suspended by the Constitutional Court he replied: “Caught in the dilemma between obeying the Constitutional Court or exercising basic human rights, we chose basic human rights.”

On civil disobedience he stated: “Civil disobedience is not to be punished […] It’s a tool societies have for achieving social progress.”

Following Cuixart’s testimony Carme Forcadell was in the dock.

Forcadell agrees to answer the questions of the Prosecutor-General and the Solicitor-General, as well as those of his defence counsel, but not those of the prosecutor representing the Spanish far right party Vox (they have brought a private prosecution which has been included in the overall prosecution).

Forcadell complained she could not speak in her own language, Catalan saying this was a violation of her language rights.

The charges against her centre on her allowing the Catalan Parliament to proceed with the 1 October referendum. In her reply she stated:

“The essence of democracy is that parliament has to be free to debate. We have to be able to talk about everything in parliament. At the speakership panel we’ve always had regards for basic rights like political pluralism and freedom of expression.”

“The Constitutional Court was asking us for something impossible: how the panel could convert itself into an organ of censorship and decide what parliament can and can’t talk about. Censorship has no place in parliament.” Later, in answer to her own counsel, he cites the speaker of the British parliament saying that he would accept a discussion on the right of self-determination.

“The panel can only organise the debate and the speaking list–the house itself is sovereign and supreme.”

The Speaker of the British House of Commons had made that statement in reply to a question about Forcadell’s trial.

Returning to the allegations that the accused incited violence the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, also gave evidence. She does not support independence but does support Catalonia’s right to self-determination and on 1 October went to vote after seeing the actions of the Spanish police.

Regarding the situation outside the Finance Ministry on September 20 she said:

“The situation was very worrying and there was a feeling of state of emergency […] a sensation of social alarm”. The National Police tried to enter the headquarters of the CUP without a search warrant.”

“We institutional, union and social representatives made a call for peaceful protest because we thought our institutions were in danger.”

“The behaviour of the people was peaceful and showed a sense of civic responsibility.”

Turning to the day of the referendum she explained:

“I took part in the October 1 referendum in my double capacity as mayor and citizen.”

“Many of us were amazed by the sort of mobilisation we saw on October 1, because it wasn’t the work of any institution or political party. It was millions of self-organised people.”

“If the accused are here for October 1, so should millions of other people.”

Others to face questioning included the former Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria, who explained to the Court that:

“Police violence is not pleasant but if there hadn’t been a call to form human walls it wouldn’t have happened.”

She also stated that the Spanish Interior Minister sent extra police to Catalonia in response to a court order. In actual fact that was the decision of the right wing Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy. He followed her in facing questions in the Court where he stated:

“There was no referendum.”

Responding to a video showing police violence at a Barcelona polling station he said:

“If the law hadn’t been broken, these images would not be being seen.”

Presiding over the trial is Manuel Marchena Gómez  Magistrate of the Supreme Court of Spain and the President of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court. The Catalan paper, El Nacional, said this about his conduct so far:

“He has let family members enter the Supreme Court room where the accused are held during recesses. He has let the accused wear yellow ribbons [a symbol of support for the prisoners]. He did not cut off the political discourse of Oriol Junqueras, even though he had warned he didn’t want political meetings. Indeed, the seven judges who are hearing the independence leaders’ case remained silent and unfazed, and at no time interrupted the former Catalan vice-president, but rather, simply listened attentively, without making notes of any kind.”

But he dismissed two witnesses from the radical left Catalan Party, Popular Unity, after they refused to answer questions from Vox’s prosecutor.

Marchena is not unaware that there is a general election underway in Spain in which Vox is predicted to make a parliamentary breakthrough and which centres very much on how Madrid should respond to Catalan demands. He is also aware this case will almost certainly go to the European Court of Human Rights – Sànchez and Cuixart have already begun the process of appeal there after the Spanish Court ruled against releasing them. In addition Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other civil liberties groups have expressed grave concerns over the trials and attention has been drawn to the presence in court of judges who are political appointees and whose neutrality has been questioned.

One issue concerns the hours the accused have to face during the days in court. On one day the prisoners were in the court building from 8am until 10.30pm. They arrived back at their jail at midnight, too late for a hot meal or a shower, and had to get up at 6am to be brought back to Madrid.

The eyes of the world are on this trial – the most important since Spain’s transition to democracy after the death of General Franco in 1975 and the end of his dictatorship. It is growing in importance too for the European Union which thus far has steadfastly stayed silent but is now facing growing concern in the European Parliament and beyond.

What stays with me is the dignity of Carme Forcadell, Jordi Cuixart and the others. That speaks volumes.

BRAVE NEW EUROPE is probably the independent international media 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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