Tensions high as Spain starts trial of Catalan separatists
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Twelve Catalan secessionist leaders go on trial in Spain's high court on Tuesday, charged for their role in a failed independence bid in October 2017 that deeply divided the country and triggered the biggest political crisis in decades. 

Hundreds of police, some of whom are from anti-terrorism units, have been deployed around the Supreme Court building in central Madrid.

The 12 defendants, facing charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds, will not speak in court on the first day of the trial, which is reserved for procedural issues. Nine of them have been jailed without bail since late 2017 and early 2018.

A National Police officer stands guard outside Spain's Supreme Court the day before the start of the trial of leaders of Catalonia's independence movement in Madrid, February 11, 2019. /VCG Photo

A National Police officer stands guard outside Spain's Supreme Court the day before the start of the trial of leaders of Catalonia's independence movement in Madrid, February 11, 2019. /VCG Photo

The attempt to declare Catalonia's independence in October 2017 followed a referendum that had been carried out in defiance of a judicial ban, and aroused anger among many in the rest of Spain. On the day of the vote, the police used batons and rubber bullets on protesters, shocking people at home and abroad. 

Supporters of the defendants say they are political prisoners and that the trial itself is political.

"The world is looking at Madrid. What they want is not to judge but to condemn on political reasons," said Olivier Peter, a lawyer for one of the accused, on Monday.

Spanish Guardia Civil guards drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid, October 1, 2017. /VCG Photo

Spanish Guardia Civil guards drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid, October 1, 2017. /VCG Photo

Rejecting this, the government said the defendants have broken the law, judges are handling the case without political interference and in line with the rule of law.

Secessionists have called on Catalans to briefly stop their work at midday on Tuesday in protest against the trial, and to join a rally in Barcelona in the evening. Another big demonstration is planned for Saturday and a general strike on February 21.

A mass protest was organized on Sunday in Madrid against any concessions by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to Catalan pro-independence parties. The center-right party Ciudadanos has called another rally next Sunday in Barcelona "in defense of the Constitution."

The pro-independence head of the Catalan regional government, Quim Torra, who will attend the opening session of the trial, called for the acquittal of the defendants.

Protesters march on the street holding a large banner with the slogan, "Elections now" as they take part in a demonstration against the Spanish government of Pedro Sanchez in Madrid, February 10, 2019. /VCG Photo

Protesters march on the street holding a large banner with the slogan, "Elections now" as they take part in a demonstration against the Spanish government of Pedro Sanchez in Madrid, February 10, 2019. /VCG Photo

The public prosecutor is seeking prison terms of up to 25 years.

The trial starts as Sanchez's minority government faces a vote on the 2019 budget on Wednesday for which it needs the support of Catalan parties. They have so far vowed to block the bill, citing Sanchez's refusal to discuss independence, despite his efforts to ease tensions with the Catalans through talks.

Failure to approve the budget is likely to prompt a snap parliamentary election this year.

(Cover image: Spain's Supreme Court is seen the day before the start of the trial of leaders of Catalonia's independence movement in Madrid, February 11, 2019. /VCG Photo)

Source(s): Reuters