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Spain's trial of the century: What’s at stake for Catalonia's separatist leaders?

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By Michael-Ross Fiorentino  & Marta Rodriguez Martinez
Spain's trial of the century: What’s at stake for Catalonia's separatist leaders?
Copyright  REUTERS/Albert Gea

Spain’s trial of the century begins today (Tuesday) as eighteen leading Catalan separatists face prosecution for their role in Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence from Spain in October last year.

More than 2.25 million people turned out in last year’s referendum across Catalonia and 90% favoured a split from Madrid.

But the Spanish government did not recognise the referendum and refer to the movement's leaders as "criminals".

The eighteen defendants in the trial face charges of rebellion, sedition, embezzlement and disobedience.

Who is on trial?

Nine of the eighteen separatists are under provisional detention, among them former Vice President of Catalonia, Oriol Junqueras, and former foreign minister Raul Romeva and ex-interior minister Joaquim Forn.

The others have been released on bail.

Four of those imprisoned are on indefinite hunger strike: Forn, Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Turull and Josep Rull.

The four sent letters to more than 40 European heads of state on Monday to protest at what they see as mistreatment by the Spanish courts, according to Reuters.

"We suffer from a judicial process that severely violates our fundamental rights, including the right to the presumption of innocence," the Catalan leaders wrote.

Their strike is to denounce what they consider to be a "blockade" of the Constitutional Court on their appeals, which prevents their "access to European Justice".

Turull, who served as an advisor to the Presidency of the Regional Government of Catalonia from July to October 2017 and began the hunger strike last December 1, was transferred last Friday to the prison infirmary, as his state of health had worsened after 13 days without eating.

Who will judge them?

The Spanish Supreme Court has set December 2018 as the formal start of the case. In the first part, which is called the hearing of previous questions, a determination of the high court’s competence to judge the pro-independence leaders will be decided on.

The defendants will not be present at the pre-trial hearing.

The defence will request that the trial be held in the Supreme Court of Catalonia, something to which both the Public Prosecutor's Office and the State Attorney's Office are opposed to.

If nothing changes after the pre-trial, the trial will begin next January on a date to be determined.

The trial is expected to last several months.

What are they accused of?

Prosecutors will try and convict the separatists of rebellion, sedition, embezzlement and disobedience and sentence them to lengthy prison terms.

The Spanish Public Prosecutor's Office, independent of the government, requests between 16 and 25 years in prison for them.

The greater penalty, 25 years in prison, is requested for the former vice president of the Catalan government, Junqueras, as he is considered the leader of the rebellion.

Meanwhile, the State Attorney's Office, under the Ministry of Justice, requests sentences of between 7 and 12 years in prison for sedition and embezzlement for Catalan independence leaders, almost half that of the Public Prosecutor's Office.

Violence is the keyword in the crime of rebellion and what differentiates it from the article of sedition, which, although it has similar wording, speaks of those who rise "tumultuously", rather than violently.

This nuance was considered by the German Court of Schleswig-Holstein when it ruled out last April to hand over the former president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont to the Spanish justice system for the crime of rebellion since, according to German law, the requirement of "violence" was not met.

Who is leading Catalonia now?

Current President of the Government of Catalonia, Quim Torram, has initiated his own 48-hour fast in support of the separatist prisoners who are on hunger strike in the Catalan prison of Lledoner.

Torra belongs to the political party of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who, having fled to Belgium, will not be tried.

Torra has proposed to achieve independence through the so-called "Slovenian way", which has multiplied the voices inside and outside Catalonia that demand that Article 155 of the Constitution be applied again, that is to say, that the Government of Spain takes control of the Catalan region.

"The Slovenians were clear about it. They decided to determine themselves and pull forward on the road to freedom with all its consequences until they achieved it", Torra has said.

After a referendum, Slovenia unilaterally declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. This was followed by a brief ten-day war, in which 74 people died and more than 300 were injured.

*This article has been updated to further explain Slovenia's independence from Yugoslavia.