It’s still early days in the Supreme Court trial of 12 Catalan leaders for their role in the 2017 failed independence bid. But, with all the defendants having given an initial testimony and several of the highest profile witnesses having taken the stand, certain themes are emerging.
One of them, of course, is the now familiar claim by at least most of the defendants that this is a political trial, driven by Madrid’s deep-state puppeteers and that it is therefore bereft of judicial credibility.
Another is the potentially crucial disagreement over what happened during demonstrations in Barcelona in September of 2017 as the civil guard searched a Catalan government building. Those associated with the independence cause see no evidence of violence during the protests, at least of the kind needed to justify the rebellion charge levelled at nine defendants. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are bent on proving otherwise.
But the biggest flashpoint of that autumn was, of course, the independence referendum staged on October 1st in defiance of the constitutional court. It has also become one of the most notorious days in modern Spanish history, with riot police breaking into several polling stations and attacking unarmed voters. At the time, it felt as if Spain had become a banana republic for a few hours, the only comfort being that, presumably, justice would be done and those responsible for the day’s brutality would suffer the consequences.
And yet, nearly 18 months later, there has been no government or parliamentary probe. Legal action is under way against a number of police, with the involvement of Barcelona city hall as a plaintiff, but no official investigation is on the horizon. All of which makes the findings of the Supreme Court with regard to the 2017 referendum particularly important. For the moment, this is the closest thing Spain has to an official inquiry into that day’s events.
With the stakes so high, the evidence given so far has, mostly, fallen disappointingly short. Last week’s roster of witnesses read almost like a who’s who of players in the 2017 Catalan crisis (with one or two obvious absentees): former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, his deputy Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the former interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido, former Catalan premier Artur Mas, pro-independence congressman and provocateur Gabriel Rufián and his mentor Joan Tardà.
And yet, between them, none of the above managed to cast a clear light on events, even when discussing the referendum itself. Rajoy had the biggest billing, of course, yet expectations were inevitably dampened by his reputation as the country’s least charismatic leader of modern times. It is only eight months since he was ousted, yet Spanish politics has moved on so fast that Rajoy looked like a relic from another era, a blue-suited woolly mammoth of a politician who had staggered into the courtroom by accident, still blinking and equivocating with all the negative pomp of his heyday. And, perhaps predictably, the man who had been in charge of the Spanish government on that black day in October 2017 had virtually nothing of substance to say about it, to the extent that he even denied that a referendum had taken place.
Rajoy, like Santamaría, distanced himself from the police’s actions. Former interior minister Zoido did the same, albeit with all the composure of a bumbling, boozed-up relative at the Christmas table. The police, not ministers, oversaw such matters, was his argument, as he repeated the phrase “I don’t remember” over and over again. Did this man really once hold one of the most important government portfolios?
When Zoido’s deputy, José Antonio Nieto, then told the court that there were no police charges on October 1st, at least as he understood the term, things moved into an altogether more worrying realm, somewhere removed from reality.
It was a relief, then, when Basque premier Íñigo Urkullu took the stand. Amid the fog of buck-passing and verbiage which had come before, his austere manner and forensic control of facts, names and dates were a balm and it was tempting at times to see him as the only adult in the room. While Urkullu’s answers gave his status as a witness copper-bottomed credibility, his willingness to attempt to mediate in the events of 2017 has shown that he is that rarest of creatures in contemporary Spanish politics: a statesman. One of the contradictions of that series of events in Catalonia is that Carles Puigdemont, according to many accounts, did not want to declare independence and Rajoy did not want to introduce direct rule. Yet, pushed to the brink by the extremes of their respective political families and lacking decisiveness, both men leapt into the abyss. Urkullu ultimately failed to stop either of them, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.
Last week I was berated by a pro-independence Catalan for making light of the trial. With the Real Madrid-Barça clásico being played on the same day as Rajoy’s court appearance, I had drawn a comparison between the two, wondering if the day’s judicial action might end up as an anti-climax, a no-score draw. My attitude, I was told, was “totally blasé”, given that nine people had been in prison for the last year or so in the build up to the trial. All I’d say to that is that no, I’m not blasé about it, but I do think such studied solemnity is unhelpful. This is not a humanitarian crisis – for that look to Venezuela or the western Mediterranean, where every day lives really are at stake as desperate migrants try to reach Spain.
What is happening in the Supreme Court is something different, however much its baggage may outrage those involved or alarm those watching. It is the mutant child of a totally unnecessary political crisis, one which has been fuelled by stubbornness and lack of equanimity on both sides. Just ask Mr Urkullu.