It’s been well over a year since Spain crushed an independence movement in the semiautonomous region of Catalonia.
Now 12 people are set to go on trial for having organized the independence referendum that sparked the crackdown.
The Spanish government accuses the defendants of sedition and rebellion, charges that together could result in sentences of up to 25 years in prison — and that are intended to send a stern warning to anybody else with dreams of breaking away from Spain.
But rather than extinguish longings for independence, the prosecution has energized a broader movement for self-determination and turned the defendants — nine of whom are in pretrial detention — into heroes.
Thousands of Catalans have demonstrated over the last year for the release the politicians, rallying around the chant “Free political prisoners!”
The president of Catalonia, Quim Torra, said in an interview in his home this month that the defendants were merely carrying out the will of the people to hold the referendum on secession.
“We feel as guilty as they do, and we feel as innocent as they do,” he said. “For this reason, we are fighting for their innocence.”
The referendum, held on Oct. 1, 2017, against the orders of the Spanish government, which deemed it unconstitutional, drew only 40% of eligible voters.
But 90% of them voted in favor of secession, and three weeks later, Carles Puigdemont, the region’s president at the time, declared independence.
That precipitated Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the country became a democracy 40 years ago.
The Spanish government fired the Catalan parliament, took control of the region, began arresting politicians and called for early elections to choose new leaders.
The results made clear that Catalonia is highly polarized over independence. Separatist parties together won a plurality of seats in parliament, but an anti-independence party, Ciudadanos, or Citizens, won more seats than any other individual party.
In June, after months of uncertainty over the region’s leadership, Torra, a little known politician from Puigdemont’s party, was sworn in as president and promised to continue the independence fight.
The 2017 crisis was the latest in a long history of clashes between the central government and Catalonia, one of 17 regions that were granted some degree of autonomy — primarily in overseeing their own education systems and infrastructure — under the 1978 constitution.
The last time Catalonia declared independence was 1934, two years before the start of the Spanish Civil War. The central government swiftly suspended the regional government and jailed many of its politicians. The Catalan president was sentenced to 30 years in prison but released and returned to his post when a leftist coalition national government took power in 1936.
This time around, the government appears set on handing down harsh punishments.
The trial is expected to start by early February, after the court approves witnesses and experts.
The defendants include former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, activists Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, the former president of Catalonia’s parliament and several members of Puigdemont’s Cabinet.
Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena made clear that he saw the referendum as an assault on Spain itself, writing in his indictment of the separatists that “this process was an attack on the constitutional order” made with “a gravity and persistence unseen in any democracy of our environment.”
But defenders of the organizers say that they were acting on the will of Catalans, who in 2015 had voted pro-independence parties into the majority in the regional parliament, and that the referendum result gave politicians a mandate to secede.
“It’s a trial against the ballot boxes,” Jordi Pina, a lawyer for three of the separatists, said at a news conference Jan. 15.
In November, more than 120 professors signed a letter opposing the charges of rebellion and sedition on legal grounds, arguing those crimes were intended for prosecution of armed groups or terrorists, not peaceful organizers.
Only one person has been convicted of rebelling since Spain’s democratic transition — a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish Civil Guard who led an attempted coup d’etat in 1981.
“From the judicial point of view, a crime of rebellion is violent,” said Manuel Cancio, a criminal law professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and a signatory of the letter.
He added that he does not believe Catalonia has a constitutional right to self-determination.
Not all the leaders of the referendum will be on trial.
Puigdemont escaped arrest by fleeing to Belgium, where he remains in self-imposed exile. Others went to Switzerland and Scotland.
Spain issued international arrest warrants for the politicians, but foreign courts have blocked attempts to extradite them.
Puigdemont and the other exiles have continued to push their case, filing complaints to the United Nations and holding panels across Europe to argue that Catalonia has a right to self-determination.
Many Catalans still view Puigdemont as their legitimate leader, and even Torra said he wants to bring him back to power — though arrest is a more likely fate if he were to return to Spain.
Torra has also been looking for foreign allies, embarking on a series of trips to convince the world that Spain is trampling on the civil liberties of the defendants.
“We are directing ourselves to the people, Europeans and Americans and the people of the free world, who feel concerned about civil rights and human rights,” Torra said.
In December, four imprisoned Catalans went on a hunger strike for more than two weeks to bring attention to their cause.
“The movement is in a stronger situation than we have ever seen,” Torra said. “The case of the Catalans is better and more understood.”
Still, he has made no headway in talks with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in negotiations that Torra hopes will lead to a new referendum.
“At each meeting we go to, we propose a series of topics, we go with our homework done, and Spain always comes with a blank page,” Torra said. “Never with a concrete proposal.”