Who's on trial?
Some of the jailed Catalan separatist leaders, clockwise from top left: Raül Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Turull, Oriol Junqueras, Josep Rull, Jordi Sanchez, Dolors Bassa, Carme Forcadell and Jordi Cuixart.Photos: AFP
The 12 include former Catalan government officials, civil leaders of pro-independence groups and the former president of Catalonia's regional parliament.
Nine have been held in pre-trial detention for months.including former Catalan vice president and regional economy minister Oriol Junqueras.
Public prosecutors have asked for a jail term of 25 years for Junqueras. He remains in charge of Catalonia's pro-independence party ERC despite being in jail since November 2017.
The former speaker of the Catalan regional parliament who read out the declaration of independence in the assembly, 63-year-old Carme Forcadell, faces a possible jail term of 17 years.
Other key figures include Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, AKA ‘Los Jordis’. The pair are accused of using huge demonstrations to try to stop Spanish police officers from following a judge’s orders to halt the referendum, which had already been suspended by the country’s constitutional court.
Sànchez, 54, and Cuixart, 43, face 17-year sentences if convicted of rebellion, or 12 years if found guilty of sedition.
Separatists call them “political prisoners” who are suffering oppression of the kind experienced in Spain during Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship.
The region's erstwhile president Carles Puigdemont — who fled to Belgium shortly after the declaration of independence — is not among the group because Spain does not allow trials in absentia for major offences.
While former ministers in his regional government are in the dock, he will be watching from afar. At the start of the trial on Tuesday, he was calling a press conference in Berlin, where he had travelled to present an award for a Netflix documentary film called “The two Catalonia's” at the Berlinale film festival.
The rest of the time he is attempting to lead a 'government in exile' or “council of the republic”from his villa in Waterloo, Belgium.
Attempts by Spanish court to extradite him on an international arrest warrant failed after a German court said the charge of rebellion did not stand.
But he faces immediate arrest on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds should he return to Spain.
Public prosecutors accuse nine of the 12 defendants — including Junqueras and Forcadell — of rebellion, which carries a jail term of 15-25 years.
Under Spain's criminal code, rebellion is defined as “rising up violently and publicly”, especially to “declare the independence of a part of the national territory”.
This charge is disputed by separatists and many Spanish legal experts. The trial will focus on the alleged use of violence, which the defendants deny.
But public prosecutors point to “violent incidents” during pro-independence protests orchestrated by two grassroots groups in Barcelona on September 20th, 2017.
Prosecutors also accuse the separatists of fostering “acts of violence and aggression against police officers” on the day of the referendum.
The October 1st, 2017 independence referendum was marred by a violent police crackdown on polling stations.
Six of the defendants accused of rebellion are also accused of misusing public funds to stage the independence bid.
Three other former Catalan government ministers face jail terms of up to seven years for disobedience and misuse of public funds.
Spanish far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal arrives to attend the trial of jailed Catalan separatists at the Supreme Court i
Spain's legal system allows for three different bodies to file criminal complaints against defendants: public prosecutors, state attorneys and a third party, in this case far-right party Vox.
Public prosecutors are made up of magistrates who are appointed by the government but are supposed to act independently.
The state attorneys, lawyers who represent the government, have taken a more lenient line than the public prosecutors. They are pushing the less serious charge of sedition and are seeking jail terms of up to 12 years.
In Spain third parties can also file criminal complaints and take part in the legal proceedings even if they are not directly involved in the case.
Vox, which is rising in the polls thanks to its hard line against Catalan separatism, is demanding a combined jail sentence of over 700 years for the 12 defendants.
The party will be represented at the court by its secretary-general Javier Ortega Smith.
The trial takes place at the Supreme Court in Madrid and although there is no time-limit, it is expected to last around three months. Proceedings will be broadcast live on television, and over 600 journalists accredited.
An estimated 500 witnesses have been called to testify, including former conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy who was in office at the time of the referendum.
The verdicts, which will be delivered several months after the trial ends, must be approved by a majority of the panel.
If found guilty, the defendants have the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court. If that appeal fails, there is always the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (C-R) and Catalan regional parliament speaker Roger Torrent (C-L) take part in a protest against the trial of jailed Catalan separatists in Madrid on February 12. Photo: AFP
The lead up to the trial has been marked by protests; demonstrations when the prisoners were moved from jails in Catalonia to Madrid, roads blocked and rubbish tipped at judicial buildings to symbolise how “justice is shit” in Spain.
At dawn on the first day of the trial, activists blocked roads in Catalonia, including the main highway into the region, burning tyres and forcing vehicles to a standstill.
Activists have also called for protesters to hit the streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, at 7pm on the first day of the trial.
How independent is Spain's judiciary?
Spain has had a long-standing public perception that its judiciary is biased.
In the EU's 2018 “Justice Scoreboard”, Spain came sixth to last among 28 member states for public perception of the independence of judges and courts, behind Poland and Hungary.Catalan separatists have dismissed the trial as a “farce” whose outcome is already pre-determined.
Not so, says the government, which has published a thick file to show Spain's justice system is just as fair as its European counterparts, citing rankings by the European Commission, the European Court of Human Rights and Transparency International.
Supreme Court President Carlos Lesmes points out that if the justice system really was not independent, the king's brother-in-law would not be in jail for corruption, nor would a court ruling have sparked a no-confidence motion that brought down the conservative government in June.
“I think this will be the most important trial we've had in democracy,” he told reporters before the start of the trial.
“It's a challenge because there's been a big smear campaign of Spain's judiciary.”
Courts in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland have also contributed to doubts about Spain's legal system by refusing to extradite separatists who had escaped after the declaration of independence.