Chris Bambery – The Spanish government should be on trial

Illiberalism in Eastern Europe is now being surpassed by Militarised Liberalism in the West – see Spain and France. This is the greater threat to democracy in Europe.

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)

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Faced with criticism of its decision to put 12 Catalan leaders on trial for rebellion and sedition, with nine held in preventative detention for over a year, the Spanish government’s response is to insist it is sticking to the letter of the law, that this is now a matter for the courts and the country’s judiciary are independent and should be left to do their job.

In a PR exercise it has gone further insisting there are no political prisoners in Spain and that there was no police violence on 1 October 2017, the day of the Catalan independence referendum, declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Claims of police violence are simply “fake news” concocted by pro-independence Catalans.

Let us examine this defence. The case against the 12 was brought by the then Popular Party Government of Mariano Rajoy, who had steadfastly refused to enter into dialogue with the Catalan Government, intent on using state forces to stop the referendum happening and when that did not work using the courts to bring a criminal prosecution.

The charges of rebellion and sedition are archaic having been removed from the statute book in other western democracies. But they are obviously political – unless the prosecution is arguing these were acts of apolitical rebellion and sedition. In fact they refer to the subsequent Declaration of Independence more than three weeks after the referendum, which is why Amnesty International is calling for the dropping of all charges and the immediate release of two of the accused, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, arrested and held in detention prior to that declaration. All 12 are accused with inciting violence on the day of the referendum and in the build up to it.

This brings us to Spanish claims of “fake news.” There were plenty of international observers and representatives of human rights groups who were clear the violence came from the Spanish paramilitary police and that the Catalans protesting police attempts to physically stop the referendum maintained their commitment to non-violence. That, for example, was the conclusion of European Parliamentarians in their statement issued on the night of the referendum – many who did not support independence but did uphold the right to self-determination.

The Spanish Supreme Court will be asked to address the fact that that rightof self-determination  is recognised under international law. It will have to address too the fact that a German court threw out an extradition request from Madrid directed at former Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, because it ruled charges of rebellion and sedition did not apply.

The defendants are confident that if the Spanish Supreme Court finds them guilty on these charges they will eventually secure release in Strasbourg, though they will have to wait in jail for several years for that to happen.

On the Spanish judiciary Spain also faces the fact senior judges are either directly appointed by the Government in Madrid or indirectly by a council whose members are appointed by the same Government. Some have used social media to air their hostile views on Catalan aspirations. They may be independent but they are not neutral.

The prosecution also includes representatives of the fascist party, Vox, which brought its own prosecution against the 12. Its leader is likely to lead in court. They are opposed to Catalan autonomy not just independence.

The idea Spain does not have political prisoners ignores, for example, those members of ETA still held in jails far from their Basque home and in top security conditions, despite that terrorist organisation ending it campaign of violence permanently, dissolving and destroying its arsenal under the eyes of reputable international observers or handing it over to the French police. Spain has lost key cases at the European Court over its refusal to investigate claims of ill-treatment by detainees in the Basque Country and the exclusion of elected Basque representatives from holding office.

The 12 defendants hope to use the trial to put the Spanish state in the dock. We shall see if they succeed in getting the likes of King Felipe V1 and Mariano Rajoy to give evidence or if videos of police violence will be ruled admissible.

When I met one of the defendants, former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, these were fears she shared but she said she was also concerned that by having to be brought to and from jails outside Madrid there would be no time for consultation with the defence team. Those fears seem to have come true.

Personally, I predict this trial will end in convictions. When I met Jordi Cuixart that is what he believed. But what is crucial is that the Spanish state, its judiciary and legal system is put under the international spotlight. We cannot expect help in that from the EU or big states like Germany, France and the UK. They just parrot Madrid’s mantra about the rule of law, judicial independence and that judicial process must take its course in a democracy.

In our book, Catalonia Reborn, George Kerevan, point to serious flaws in Spanish democracy because of a transition process following the death of Franco in 1975. This was overseen from above by a “liberal” section of the old fascist regime and the opposition (chiefly the Socialist and Communist Parties). The anti-fascist resistance which flourished in the final years of Francoist rule was excluded. Much of the Francoist state survived, as did its judges, police chiefs and officer corps, Franco’s designated successor, King Juan Carlos, became head of state and the economic elite kept their positions.

But that will be ignored in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London.

It was gratifying that the Spanish Government faced great criticism across Europe on the first day of trial from sections of the media, legal figures, human rights champions and politicians. In the UK both The Times and the Independent carried editorials critical of the prosecution (Madrid will find it Difficult to paint either as separatist organs). Similarly at Westminster a protest that morning by Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru MPs (who will be dismissed by Madrid as separatists) was also joined by Labour and Conservative MPs.

I would appeal for political figures, lawyers, academics, writers, human rights champions and others to attend the trial, even if like Amnesty they have to queue at the public entrance after the judges ruled against international observers being seated. Come to the protest in Madrid on 16 March. Invite relatives of the defendants to explain what their partners, fathers, mothers and friends have and are experiencing.

In plain words, if the defendants cannot put the Spanish state and judiciary in the dock, we must.

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