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CARACCIO: 12 Angry Men: Catalan Democracy on Trial

After enduring 588 nights in prison, Oriol Junqueras, the former Vice President of Catalonia, rose from his seat to deliver his final statement to the Spanish Supreme Court, marking the closing of the trial which examined the role he and 11 other Catalan leaders played in the October 1, 2017 Catalan Independence Referendum. A 25-year prison sentence and the freedom of his nation hanging in the balance, Junqueras faced the ornate, crimson-velvet thrones of the judges in Madrid from the unassuming prisoner’s dock before them. “It’s been a year and a half during which they haven’t let me speak,” Junqueras told the judges. He spoke in Spanish, as the court had employed surreptitious means of forbidding the tried political prisoners from speaking in their native Catalan throughout the proceedings. 

Addressing his leadership in the referendum, which landed him charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds, Junqueras asserted, “Voting, or defending the Republic in parliament, cannot constitute a crime. When it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms, having the will to talk, to negotiate, to find agreement, should never be a crime.” 

The primary charge for which Junqueras and his counterparts have been imprisoned for more than a year following the referendum, and for which they face a combined 200-year sentence, is one of rebellion. While the Catalan leaders who championed the Catalan Independence referendum maintain that their involvement in the movement simply constituted an expression of the fundamental right to vote—the arch tenet of democracy—Spanish representatives have depicted their leadership as violent and riotous. The state prosecutor has repeatedly referenced the movement as a “Coup d’Etat,” reinforcing the incriminating narrative portraying the Catalan leaders as unruly insurgents. 

However, as Junqueras’s defense lawyer asserted, Spanish law stipulates that rebellion involves “revolting violently and publicly.” As nonviolence rests at the core of the Catalan movement, all 12 defendants have emphatically maintained that no violence was employed by the Catalan people at any point during the referendum or thereafter. The only violence that occurred on October 1, 2017, they affirm, was that which the Catalan people suffered at the hands of the Spanish military police—a claim which has been verified by video footage capturing the day’s proceedings. 

Following 422 witness testimonies spanning the four-month trial, the court will release its verdict dictating the fate of Junqueras, the 11 other defendants, and the legitimacy of Spain’s democracy in the next several months. Though all 12 Catalan leaders deny the charges, they steadfastly hold to their convictions and the righteousness of the actions for which they’re being tried. “I’m innocent and I want to say it loudly and clearly,” remarked Catalan politician Dolors Bassa. Vocalizing the resounding consensus among the political prisoners, Jordi Cuixart, former leader of the Catalan civil society Omnium Cultural, declared, “I would do it again.” 

Clad from head to toe in yellow—the color of solidarity with Catalonia’s political prisoners—former president of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, addressed the court with steely conviction. “I hope you judge the confirmed facts and not the false speculations which omit reality,” Forcadell said. “I am being tried for my political career, for being who I am, not for my actions,” declared Forcadell. “It’s totally incomprehensible that I’m being accused of rebellion.”

The dispute of whether the defendants in fact resorted to insurrectional violence during the referendum—the claim upon which the charges of rebellion hinge—was a primary focal point in the court discussions. In a decision that has raised eyebrows internationally, the Spanish Supreme Court banned all footage of the referendum from being presented as evidence in the trial until after all witnesses had given their testimony. “Sincerely, I found that surrealist,” remarked Jean-Francois Blanco, a French lawyer taking station among the ranks of international observers, in an interview with The Washington Post. “Who interviews police officers without showing the videos of the incidents concerned?” 

***

I happened to travel to Barcelona on the eve of the Catalan Independence Referendum, and bore witness to the events that transpired on October 1, 2017. 

On the morning of the referendum, the streets of Barcelona pulsed with the spirit of celebration. Across Catalonia, in every neighborhood, Catalans congregated together in the polling stations—sleeping bags and the remnants of potlocks they had shared the night before strewn about. Many had spent the night guarding the poll entrances to ensure that the military police wouldn’t block citizens from voting the following morning. With the promise of freedom in the air, it seemed as though, after centuries of holding its collective breath, Catalonia could finally exhale. Lining the streets, Catalans embraced and shed tears, applauding as elderly folk in walkers and wheelchairs approached the polling booths with independentist ribbons pinned to their coats. A single sentiment seemed to echo: I never thought I’d live to see this day. 

That celebratory spirit, however, shattered along with the windows of the polling stations, as 10,000 military police poured in from giant sea-borne ships, wielding batons and rubber-bullet guns. Brutally assaulting Catalans who attempted to vote, firing rubber bullets indiscriminately into crowds, and beating their way through the Catalans’  human-chains, the Spanish military police confiscated ballot boxes across Catalonia. Women were pulled to the ground by their hair; the elderly folk were forcefully restricted. By nightfall, Catalan officials reported that over 900 Catalans had sustained injuries—as had the Catalan morale at large. 

***

The referendum results demonstrated 90.2% support for Catalan Independence. Though police raids prevented an estimated 770,000 people from voting (nearly 15% of the voting population), the referendum still saw a turnout of about 2.2 million votes out of 5.3 million people: a 43% participation level.

Shortly thereafter, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy adamantly claimed that “no referendum has been held in Catalonia.” When hundreds of video clips capturing the brutalization of the people were finally disseminated, Spanish officials switched tactics, instead emphasizing the illegality of the referendum under the Spanish Constitution and promulgating claims that the referendum had been a violent rebellion. 

Following the will of the people and upholding the promise they had made to their constituents at the time of their election, Catalan officials unilaterally declared independence from Spain later that month, on October 27, 2017. Spain retaliated by invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, dissolving the Catalan Parliament and imposing direct rule over Catalonia. The President of the Catalan Republic, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium in exile. The remaining Catalan leaders who didn’t escape were thrown into prison—where they have been held until the final trials, and where they remain.

The trial proceedings have fallen under close scrutiny; their fairness and impartiality called into question by international observers affiliated with the International Trial Watch.  Before the trial even began, many found issue with the fact that the Catalan leaders had been illegally held as political prisoners for over 500 nights sans trial or bail. As Raül Romeva, Catalan Parliament leader and defendant, decried, “They haven’t been able to bring a single piece of evidence which shows why we’re here. Not one. Zero.”

Moreover, many objected to the location of the trial—held in the capital of Spain instead of in Barcelona, as prescribed under Spanish procedural law—claiming it unfairly predetermined the outcome in favor of the national government. In the traditional Spanish baroque pews of the Tribunal Supremo de España (The Spanish Supreme Court), the ideological vestiges of Franco’s fascist regime are still alive and kicking.

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As the court proceedings unfolded over the past four months, the defendants have been forced to advocate for their freedom in Spanish—the language of their oppressors—instead of their native Catalan. By forbidding simultaneous translation and only offering consecutive translation services, the Spanish Supreme Court corned the defendants into making their statements in Spanish, as a consecutive translation following each of their Catalan testimonials would nearly double the length of the trial that was already clocking at four months. The suppression of the Catalan language looms large in Catalan history and plays a central role in shaping the impetus for independence. 

Following a long history fraught with the intolerance of Catalonia’s distinctive culture and traditions, Franco banned the use of the Catalan language during his regime from 1939 to 1975. With a language ban spanning the education system, the media, the telegraph service and commercial dealings, those who defied the national legislation and continued to use their native tongue were met with draconian punishment, often administered by the Spanish military under Franco’s command. Catalan authors were forbidden from writing in their native language, and everything published in Catalan was immediately burned. Civil servants who spoke in Catalan faced instant dismissal.  

And yet, despite such sustained, heavy-handed attempts to stifle Catalonia’s cultural identity by extinguishing the vehicle of its preservation, nearly 45 years later, Catalan remains widely spoken. Today, an impressive 7.3 million people speak Catalan. More Catalan is spoken in Europe than Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, among other languages: a testament to the will of the people and the persisting sense of cultural distinction that animates Catalonia’s independence movement.

***

While the Catalan independence movement originated as a response to this attack on the language, it has developed over the decades as the Catalan identity has been subject to an unabating onslaught on multiple fronts. 

Catalonia’s distinct identity dates back more than a thousand years, and Catalonia boasts the first parliament in history. Under the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Catalonia was conferred partial autonomy and was granted political sovereignty over certain issues. However, in many instances, when the Catalan government has passed a law, Spain has systematically deemed it to be unconstitutional, de facto stripping Catalonia of the legislative power to which it is entitled.

The Spanish government has dismantled numerous Catalan laws that resemble the progressive policies of Northern and Central Europe, simply due to ideological disagreements. Among them, Catalan laws forbidding bullfighting on the grounds of animal cruelty, banning oil and gas fracking, protecting small commerce, establishing climate change safeguards, and protecting gender equality have all been contested by Spain—each brought to the Constitutional tribunal in Madrid and thereupon suspended.

The interference of the Spanish state in Catalan affairs is constant and often brutal. It was the government’s egregious attack on the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of the Catalan constitution (L’Estatut) in 2010 which sent the resounding message that Spain would only accept a Catalonia on its knees. Barely four years after L’Estatut was passed into law, the Constitutional Tribunal of Spain curtailed the autonomy that the document had conferred to Catalonia. 

This raging injustice sparked the first of six mass independentist demonstrations held across Catalonia annually on September 11: A day to commemorate the defeat of Catalonia in 1714, and the decisive loss of autonomy that continues to plague the nation.

Following the stripping of L’Estatut and the massive mobilization of the people, the Catalan government called for an independence referendum in 2012. Circumnavigating the Spanish government’s ban, the Catalan government went ahead with the voting in 2014, calling it a “popular consultation” instead. More than two million Catalan people voted, with 81% demonstrating support for independence. The Spanish government, however, refused to recognize the validity of the vote. 

In response to this thwarted attempt to conduct a nationally recognized independence referendum, Catalan officials leveraged the Catalan Parliamentary elections as a proxy vote.  If the candidates running on an independentist platform were elected to the Catalan Parliament in a bonafide vote, majority support for independence could be concluded. Indeed, the independentist parties won the Parliamentary majority — the elected officials’ electoral promise being that they’d start the process toward forming the independent Catalan Republic.

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For centuries, millions of Catalans have taken the streets to advocate for independence, with recent protests claiming records for their unparalleled proportions. However, the crux of the Catalan movement has expanded beyond the question of whether or not Catalonia should in fact secede from Spain, or what the implications may be. Instead, the Catalan plight has been distilled to a fundamental claim of democracy. While a demonstrated majority of Catalans do in fact desire independence, the recent calls reverberating around the nation have simply been pleas for the right to vote.

Spain’s unwavering antagonism toward the Catalan independence movement, reflected throughout the trial’s proceedings, does not portend well for the political prisoners awaiting their verdict. Nevertheless, the 12 Catalan leaders concluded their final court statements with sanguine sentiments underscoring the power of the Catalan populace, and the undeniability of the Independence movement. “Self-determination is simple and transcendental,” declared Josep Rull, the former Catalan Territory and Sustainability Minister. “There will always be more people following us. There are not enough prisons to lock up our desire for freedom,” he asserted, adding that Catalonia would one day become a republic “where it would be impossible for anyone to be put in prison simply for standing up for what they believe in.” Jordi Turull, the former Catalan president’s office minister and government spokesperson, also denounced Spain’s attempt to quash the popular movement by locking him up in prison. “Decapitating us will not decapitate the independence movement or the desire for independence and self-determination in Catalonia,” he stated

Seated in the trial dock, the 12 Catalan leaders faced their impending prison sentences and the incomprehensible fact that it was their decision to carry out the will of their Catalan constituents that had landed them there. “I didn’t want to disobey the requests of the 80% of the population which demanded to vote,” explained Dolors Bassa. “Disobedience would have been to stand [for election] with a manifesto and not fulfil it.”

“In this dock, we’re not only 12 people, we’re more than two million,” trenchantly declared Raül Romeva. Although the 12 prisoners spoke with great aplomb as representatives of the Catalan movement at large, their final statements ushered in a reminder of the unconscionable oppression to which they have been personally subjected—and which continues to threaten them on the eve of the verdict. Beyond the demise of democracy, sentencing the Catalan leaders would mean stripping them of their families and their freedom simply for carrying out the mandate of those they represent. “With my imprisonment you’ve decided that I can’t see my children grow up,”  indignantly proclaimed Rull. He sat tall with conviction before the gilded bench of the Spanish Supreme Court judges who would soon decide his fate. “But whatever the sentence may be, I will leave them the dignity of having defended legitimate and noble ideas.”