Trial of Catalan separatists begins in Madrid amid protests

A bus belonging to Spain's Civil Guard allegedly carrying Catalonian politicians and activists, arrives at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
A Spanish National Police van, allegedly carrying Catalonian politicians and activists, arrives at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
The president of Catalonian Parliament, Roger Torrent, center, and the Catalan regional President Quim Torra, center right, hold a placard that reads in Spanish: " To Choose is not a Crime", outside the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
Catalan regional President Quim Torra, right, next to the president of Catalonian Parliament, Roger Torrent, left, arrive at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
A bus belonging to Spain's Civil Guard allegedly carrying Catalonian politicians and activists, arrives at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Catalan regional President Quim Torra, right, and the president of Catalonian Parliament Roger Torrent arrive at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
Front row from left, Joaquim Form, Raul Romeva, Oriol Junquera, second row from left, Josep Rull, Jordi Turull, Jordi Sanchez, third row from left, Dolors Bassa, Carmen Forcadell, Jordi Cuixart, back row from left, Meritxell Borras, Santiago Vila, and Carles Mundo during the trial at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (Emilio Naranjo/Pool via AP)
Catalan regional President Quim Torra, centre, arrives at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
A bus belonging to Spain's Civil Guard allegedly carrying Catalonian politicians and activists, arrives at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont attends a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, center, is flanked by his lawyer Gonzalo Boye, left, and a staff member right, as he addresses the media during a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Journalists wait outside the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Pro independence demonstrators gather outside the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 file photo, Catalan regional Vice-President, Oriol Junqueras, left, and Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, attend a protest called by pro-independence supporters outside the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain. Spain's Supreme Court is bracing to hold the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week with all eyes focused on its ability to stand up to concerted campaign by Catalonia's separatists to attack its credibility. Twelve high-profile Catalan separatists will face charges including rebellion for their role in a failed attempt to achieve secession for the prosperous north-eastern region in 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)
Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont attends a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Pro independence demonstrators gather outside the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Spain is bracing for the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week, with a dozen Catalan separatists facing charges including rebellion over a failed secession bid in 2017. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)
FILE - In this Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 file photo, Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, center, is greeted after a vote on independence in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, Spain. Spain's Supreme Court is bracing to hold the nation's most sensitive trial in four decades of democracy this week with all eyes focused on its ability to stand up to concerted campaign by Catalonia's separatists to attack its credibility. Twelve high-profile Catalan separatists will face charges including rebellion for their role in a failed attempt to achieve secession for the prosperous north-eastern region in 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

MADRID — A politically charged trial of a dozen Catalan separatist leaders got underway Tuesday in Spain's Supreme Court amid protests and the possibility of an early general election being called in the country.

The defendants are being tried on rebellion and other charges stemming from their roles in pushing ahead with a unilateral independence declaration in October 2017. The declaration was based on the results of a divisive secession referendum that ignored a constitutional ban.

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.

Sanchez could be forced to call an early election if the Catalan separatists, whose support brought the Socialists to power last year, don't change their current position of voting against his spending plan on Wednesday.

The separatists want Sanchez to agree to talks on self-determination for their region, but the government argues that Spain's constitution doesn't allow it.

Opening the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Spanish Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero told Catalan lawmakers that the government would "not give in to any blackmail by anybody."

"Under no circumstance will we agree to include the right to self-determination in Catalonia in any talking points," she said.

Meanwhile, Sanchez appeared to put more pressure on his opponents by tweeting that "the right-wing and the separatists will vote against a budget that helps social causes."

"They both want the same thing: a Catalonia that is divided and a Spain that is divided," he wrote.

Tensions between regional and central authorities peaked with the 2017 breakaway attempt but the conflict has been festering ever since. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia remain divided by the secession question.

On Tuesday, pro-independence protesters briefly blocked highways in the northeastern region and roads in its capital. A sit-down demonstration outside the Barcelona office of the state prosecutor was cleared by the regional police without incident.

In Madrid, right-wing protesters carrying national flags shouted as lawyers and three defendants who were free on bail entered the 18th-century convent that houses Spain's Supreme Court.

Former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, the regional parliament's former Speaker Carme Forcadell and the other 10 defendants weren't expected to testify Tuesday, but they sat on four benches in the middle of the courtroom.

Holding papers in their hands and smiling to each other at times, the defendants sat facing a seven-judge panel headed by Supreme Court magistrate Manuel Marchena, who moderates the proceedings.

Junqueras' lawyer, Andreu Van Den Eynde, was the first to speak, arguing that the cause goes "against political dissidence."

"We are before an exceptional trial," he told the judges, adding that "self-determination is the formula to avoid conflicts in the world."

Catalan President Quim Torra, a fervent separatist who has had to apologize for anti-Spanish comments, followed the proceedings from the back of the courtroom, where 100 seats were reserved for the defendants' relatives, journalists and members of the public who lined up for hours to get one of the limited spots.

Among those not on trial is Carles Puigdemont, Torra's predecessor who fled Spain. He called for the 12 separatists to be absolved for their alleged crimes and called the trial "a stress test for the Spanish democracy."

Addressing reporters at a news conference in Berlin, the former Catalan leader added: "I trust, however, that the Spanish state will take advantage of this chance to issue the correct sentence, which is absolution."

Puigdemont successfully avoided extradition to Spain when a German court refused to send him back on charges of rebellion last year.

Those who stayed behind and showed up in court are the ones facing trial. Junqueras, Puigdemont's No. 2 at the time, faces up to 25 in prison if found guilty of rebellion, while others charged with sedition or misuse of public funds could get shorter sentences if convicted.

The proceedings were broadcast live on television in a display of transparency that aims to fight the separatists' attack on the court's credibility. Authorities in Spain have dismissed the notion that the trial is political and say it follows the Europe Union's highest standards.

Proceedings were likely to last for at least three months. The verdicts, and any sentences, will be delivered months later.

___

Wilson reported from Barcelona.

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