At the beginning of October 2017, a referendum on Catalonian independence sparked a furious response from the Spanish state, amid accusations that the secessionist politicians and civil society activists behind the poll had committed sedition and rebellion and misused public funds.

Over the past four months, those charges have been controversially tested in a trial at Spain's Supreme Court, featuring 12 leaders of the independence movement. A verdict is expected this year and if found guilty the defendants could face many years in prison.

The case has raised serious questions about the independence of the Spanish judiciary, because of concerns over the state's decision to treat this deeply divisive issue as a criminal rather than political matter.

We sent filmmakers Sarah Spiller and Callum Macrae to investigate.


By Callum Macrae

The hearings for Spain's "trial of the century" have finally ended.

Most of the defendants Catalonian politicians and civic leaders accused of sedition and rebellion after calling a referendum on independence - have gone back to jail to await sentencing. Some are already approaching two years in custody. If found guilty some of them could face up to 25 years imprisonment.

But Spain's profound political and democratic crisis shows no sign of reaching a resolution.

There is little doubt that the decision of the Catalonian government in 2017 to hold a referendum on independence from Spain was, technically, unlawful: An act of civil disobedience born out of frustration over constitutional provisions which mean such a referendum cannot be legally held without the approval of the Spanish government.

But the decision of the Spanish government to treat the referendum as a legal problem to be dealt with by the police and the courts, rather than as a political issue requiring a political response, has plunged Spain into what is arguably the biggest test of its relatively young democracy since the death of former Head of State Francisco Franco in 1975.

People and Power - People take part in a rally of Catalan separatist organisations in Madrid
In March, people in Madrid took part in a rally of Catalan separatist organisations to demonstrate against the trial [Reuters]

We have been following the crisis as it has unfolded.

On the day of the referendum, the world was shocked by television images of Spain's paramilitary police force, the Guardia Civil, seemingly ruthlessly beating and attacking unarmed civilians attempting to cast their vote. For the government, it was an extraordinary public relations disaster.

The police used truncheons and plastic bullets against voters, physically dragging others, seemingly irrespective of their age or vulnerability, away from polling stations and forcefully seizing ballot boxes, whether full of voting slips or not.

According to the Catalan government, over 1,000 people trying to vote were injured.

In our film, one young musician describes how he lost the vision of one eye when he was hit directly by a plastic bullet fired by the Guardia Civil outside a polling station in a primary school in Barcelona.

But what made these images particularly disturbing was that the police response could not be dismissed simply as an over-reaction to a small group of protesters or activists. In fact, around half of Catalonia's registered electors tried to vote that day, defying both the police operation and a thinly veiled threat by a spokeswoman for the government of the centre-right People's Party, who warned on television that anyone who went to vote with their family would "be at risk", adding that to do so would "expose kids and your family to a risky situation, and an illegal situation".

Rebellion and sedition

In the end, 43 percent of eligible voters succeeded in casting their vote - and having them counted. Others were seized, uncounted, by the state authorities.

When the result was declared, 92 percent had voted yes to independence. But that figure conceals a confused reality. Catalan parties and politicians opposed to independence had called for a boycott of the referendum. If the half of eligible voters who didn't vote were broadly against independence, it would suggest Catalonia is fairly equally divided on the issue.

The trouble is we don't know. And the Spanish government, now led by the centre-left Socialist party, shows no sign of agreeing to the constitutional changes required to make such a referendum possible or legal.

What we do know is that a series of decisions taken by both the Catalan and the Spanish governments following the referendum plunged Spain into a profound democratic crisis. A crisis which has divided the country, raising serious concerns about the independence of the Spanish judiciary and awkward allegations of an abuse of judicial process.

In the tense days that followed the referendum, the Spanish government declared its intention to suspend the Catalan parliament. The Catalans responded by declaring independence - and three days later Spain's attorney general announced that the leading members of the Catalan government were to be charged with rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds.

People and Power - Catalan Prisoners Attend The Opening Session Of The Spanish Parliament
In May, the Supreme Court allowed the Catalan separatist politicians who are on trial to attend the first plenary session of the Spanish Parliament [GALLO/GETTY]

These were extremely serious charges. Rebellion, in particular, suggested the accused were guilty of instigating or taking part in an armed insurrection or violent coup, for which they could be sentenced to up to 25 years in jail.

Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont fled the country - along with three other accused - arguing they could better continue to fight if they were free. Twelve others, politicians and civil society leaders, were charged. Most were refused bail and taken into custody.

The decision caused real concern in some sections of the judicial establishment. Former Supreme Court judge Martin Pallin told us the case should never have been brought before the criminal courts.

'Everything is political here'

"It should never have been treated as a crime," Pallin said. "There was violence, but it should have been considered as public disorder or as any other type of delinquent behaviour, but never, never as a crime of rebellion or sedition."

From the first day of the trial, the government rejected any suggestion that the judicial process had been tainted by politics. But it was a tough proposal to defend. And it seemed that with every day that passed it became tougher not least because of a unique provision in Spanish law which allows citizens and organisations to act as "people's prosecutors" in some trials.

This led to the extraordinary situation where Spain's resurgent far-right populist party, Vox, became official coprosecutors of the Catalan twelve, along with the state solicitor and the attorney general.

Almost as soon as the trial began, judicial attempts to rise above the political fray became even more difficult. On the second day of the trial, the Catalan independence parties in the Spanish government voted against the ruling Socialist Party's budget proposals - and brought the government down, forcing a snap general election.

As Spain prepared to go to the polls, several of the Catalan defendants and the two prosecuting attorneys from the far-right Vox party all stood as candidates.

One of the Catalan defendant's lawyers, Andreu Van Den Eynde, told us: "It's political from the very beginning. You have a case that's based on … the criminalisation of an ideology. And then we have a prosecutor which is a political party. So everything is political here."

An anti-independence activist removes Catalonian flags in Besalu
An anti-independence activist removes a Catalan flag from a fence in Besalu, Spain [Reuters]

That is a charge roundly rejected by Spain's centre-right People's Party, the party in government when the referendum took place and the charges were laid.

"I cannot accept that, it's just propaganda," party spokesperson Jose Ramon Hernandez told us. "I will never share any doubt about the independence of the judiciary at all. We are a full democracy, there is no risk of freedom of the speech."

Though he added, somewhat surprisingly: "I think there is too much freedom of speech," explaining, "everyone can say whatever and with no consequences." He went on to say he thought the trial would spell the end of the Catalan independence movement.

But now there is a hiatus. The Vox prosecutors have taken the seats they successfully won in the election last month. The Catalan defendants, who won their seats, were allowed out of jail to be sworn into parliament - only to be suspended two days later by the government.

So Spain's crisis is on hold. But contrary to Hernandez's prediction, the Catalan independence movement has been revitalized by recent electoral successes and is warning of renewed political conflict should the defendants be found guilty - while Spanish nationalists from the centre and far-right are warning of the consequences should they be found innocent or be pardoned.

Spain's crisis appears to be far from over.

Source: Al Jazeera