In Brief

Catalan separatists begin ‘trial of the century’ in Madrid

Twelve people appear before Supreme Court charged with rebellion

The long-awaited trial of Catalan’s separatist leaders has begun, in what Spain’s most senior judge has claimed is the most important case in the country’s democratic history.

Twelve people are appearing before the Supreme Court in Madrid on charges of rebellion and violating court orders. Nine of them could face 25 years in jail if found guilty of rebellion.

The semi-autonomous region triggered a standoff with the Spanish capital after attempting to push forward with secession in the autumn of 2017. It followed a brutal police crackdown during an independence referendum, deemed unconstitutional by Madrid, that sparked the country's worst political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s.

Supreme Court President Carlos Lesmes has described the case as “the most important trial we’ve had in democracy”, while The Guardian reports the “landmark proceedings” have been variously described as “the trial of the century, a 'stress test for Spanish democracy', and the single most important judicial event the country has seen since the end of the Franco dictatorship”.

Reuters says it “also exposes the workings of Spain’s democracy - relatively young by western European standards - to their widest scrutiny since a failed coup in 1981”.

Given the high-profile nature of the case and amid accusations the fate of the twelve has already been pre-determined, “the Spanish government has been keen to combat any claims of prejudice, publishing a file of documents to illustrate how Spain's justice system is as impartial and fair as its European counterparts”, reports Lauren Said-Moorhouse for CNN.

These included court rankings by the European Commission, the European Court of Human Rights and campaign-group Transparency International.

The trail will also be broadcast live on television “so that all can judge the neutrality of the country's highest court” says Said-Moorhouse.

Around 500 witnesses, including the former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, are expected to give evidence before the seven-judge panel reach a verdict.

Former vice-president of Catalonia Oriol Junqueras told the BBC that the “trial is an action against an ideology and against political dissent”.

“It's a judgement on democracy,” he said, and one “which creates a dangerous precedent for all of Europe”.

Junqueras is the most prominent figure from Catalan regional government to stand trial. Missing from proceedings, however, will be former leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who is living in self-imposed exile in Brussels.

Supporters of the defendants says they are political prisoners and in November, more than 100 legal experts from across Spain signed an open letter condemning the use of the charge of rebellion in the Catalan case.

But the government says they are being judged strictly in line with the rule of law under the constitution, which bans any Spanish region from seceding.

The politically charged trial, which is expected to last at least three months, “comes at a pivotal time for Spain's government”, Al Jazeera says.

A snap national election is likely unless Catalan nationalist lawmakers change track by ending their opposition to the 2019 budget in a vote on Wednesday.

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