The Times view on the trial of the Catalan 12: Spanish Inquisition
By The Times, Feb 1st 2019 --> Read original article
The landmark legal case involving separatist politicians is a test of Madrid’s justice.
The trial of Catalan politicians and activists on charges related to their role in the region’s 2017 bid to split from Spain is expected to start next week. This will turn the spotlight back on to a crisis that threatened to tear apart a major European country and inflict further instability on the continent. The accused face charges of rebellion, sedition, disobedience and misuse of public funds. In an interview with The Times, Jordi Sànchez, the former leader of the Catalan National Assembly civil action group, who is facing up to 17 years in jail if convicted, claims that this will be a “political trial”. The Spanish justice system needs to dispel such fears by ensuring the trial is fair. How the Spanish state conducts itself in the coming months will determine whether this trial draws a line under the crisis or reignites it.
Certainly Mr Sànchez and his co-defendants have a legitimate case to answer. Mr Sànchez concedes that mistakes were made and that the Catalan leadership’s declaration of independence following an illegal referendum was “the last thing that anyone wanted”. He blames “a failure of dialogue on all sides” for the breakdown of talks with Mariano Rajoy, the former Spanish prime minister. Yet the reality is that the Catalan leadership made a series of reckless misjudgements in calling a dubious referendum, then declaring independence in violation of Spain’s 1978 constitution which alludes to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”, and then assuming foreign goverments would support their cause. In the event, not a single government recognised their bid for independence.
Clearly Madrid has made mistakes too. Pictures of the Spanish police’s heavy-handed attacks on voters and attempts to seize ballot boxes went viral around the world, garnering public if not official sympathy for the Catalan leaders. Mr Rajoy’s pursuit and imprisonment of the leaders was also heavy-handed. Mr Sànchez has been held in custody for 16 months awaiting trial. Seven members of the Catalan leadership, including the former regional president Carles Puigdemont, remain in exile.
That said, Mr Rajoy’s gamble in taking direct control of Catalonia until new elections were held last year has so far paid off. The new regional government comprised of pro-independence parties has so far resisted any further escalation.
Nonetheless the calm is deceptive. The 2017 crisis has fuelled a resurgence of Spanish nationalism that had been dormant for 40 years since the end of fascism. Many Spaniards fear that should Catalonia succeed in its bid for independence then other regions would also seek to breakaway, causing the country to fall apart. The rise of the new right-wing Vox party, which recently won 12 seats in the Andalusian regional parliament, directly reflects widespread public anger at the perception that Madrid has appeased secessionists in Catalonia and the Basque country for too long. The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, relies on Catalan secessionist parties to keep his minority Socialist government in power.
The risk is that this trial will lead to a further polarisation of Spanish politics, raising the prospect of fresh confrontation. At some point, Spain clearly needs a new constitutional settlement agreed by all political forces. But a political solution to the crisis will only be possible if Mr Sànchez and his co-defendants are seen to be treated fairly.