Lawyers for Catalan politicians facing charges of rebellion urged judges to remain impartial as Spain’s politically charged "trial of the century" began on Tuesday.
"Act as judges, not as saviours of the nation," said Jordi Pina, defence lawyer for three of the twelve accused on the opening day of the trial in which pro-independence politicians face jail sentences of up to 25 years for their roles in the 2017 independence referendum.
Nine are charged with rebellion and three face lesser charges of disobedience and misuse of public funds, and the nation tuned in to watch the proceedings being televised live.
The independence bid sparked Spain’s deepest political crisis since the transition to democracy in the 1970s after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.
"This case targets political dissidence," said Andreu Van den Eynde, the lawyer for two defendants including Catalonia’s former vice president Oriol Junqueras, who could face up to 25 years in jail.
The lawyer accused authorities of violating the defendants’ fundamental rights, and argued the accusations of crimes such as rebellion and sedition were completely disproportional.
"No one in Europe understands the severity being applied," he said, adding that the trial is an attack on the freedom of expression, the right to protest, ideological liberty and “political dissidence”.
The trial, arguably Spain’s most important in four decades of democracy, began as the future of prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority government hinges on last-minute negotiations with Catalan pro-independence parties to back his 2019 budget.
On Wednesday, Catalan members of Spain’s parliament are poised to vote down Mr Sanchez’s budget bill, which would almost certainly trigger a snap election in a matter of months.
Quim Torra, Catalonia’s president, took part in a small protest against the trial outside the court before taking a seat in the courtroom to show support for the accused.
The chief spokeswoman for Catalonia’s government, Elsa Artadi, told reporters that the only acceptable verdicts in what she termed a “hate trial” would be acquittal.
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Mr Van den Eynde said the investigation into the accused, most of whom have been held in custody for the past 11 months or even longer, had been conducted like a “witch-hunt”, in which the facts had been twisted to fit the harshest possible accusations.
Mr Junqueras faces a possible prison sentence of 25 years if found guilty of rebellion and misuse of public funds, while prosecutors have asked for terms of between 17 and seven years for his 11 fellow accused.
The crime of rebellion requires the existence of a “violent public uprising” in an attempt to change the constitutional order.
The key events on which the accusations are based are a mass demonstration in the streets of Barcelona in protest at Guardia Civil agents arresting Catalan government officials, and the holding of the referendum on October 1 2017, despite it having been banned by Spain’s constitutional court.
The accused will all argue that there was no violence involved in their bid for independence from Spain, while the prosecution’s view is that the politicians took decisions that ensured there would be large numbers of independence supporters in the streets to create a confrontation.
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