The trial against twelve Catalan nationalist leaders wrapped up in Madrid last week. In a rarely seen exercise in transparency, the inquiry was televised live from Spain’s Supreme Court. This largely offset one of the defendants’ strategies: questioning the credentials of Spain’s judicial system.
While the trial initially attracted significant international attention, the lengthy proceedings and intricate technicality of the hearings meant that the limelight quickly fizzled out. Anybody could follow the trial from the comfort of their own tablets, anywhere in the world, thus rendering meaningless the presence of defendant-sponsored “international observers.”
Political Prisoners in the EU?
From the beginning, the defense attorneys addressed their narratives to an international audience rather than the Supreme Court running the investigation. However, their attempts to present the defendants as “political prisoners” have suffered significant setbacks in recent weeks.
On May 28, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decreed that the temporary suspension of the Parliament of Catalonia’s plenary in 2017 was a “reasonable response” to “an imminent need” of peacekeeping. The ECHR described the actions of Spain’s constitutional institutions as “necessary in the context of a democratic society’s preservation of public safety, law and order, and for the protection of the civil rights and liberties of all citizens.”
The ECHR ruled that the complaint made by the former Catalan officials was “manifestly ill-founded” in that their own actions effectively “prevented opposition MPs from carrying out their duty of representation.” More recently, on June 12, the ECHR ruled out supporting the defendants’ request to suspend their protective custody.
The ECHR’s pronouncements came as no surprise to those familiar with Spain’s rights-based judicial system: its 167 ECHR cases since 1978 pale into insignificance when compared with the 340 of Germany, 547 of the United Kingdom, 1,013 of France or 2,396 of Italy in the same period.
However, the “political prisoners” rhetoric carries the appeal of Twitter-friendly simplicity. After all, some politicians are indeed standing trial, and the anti-Spanish narrative strikes a chord with those prone to buying into a Black Legend-based propaganda campaign that is generously financed by Catalonia’s nationalist administration and supported by the usual populist suspects.
Spain’s Separation of Powers
The twelve Catalan separatists are not the only Spanish politicians in trouble with the country’s judiciary. Ministers and high-ranking officials of both traditional ruling parties (the center-left PSOE and the center-right PP) have served or are currently serving prison sentences on charges that range from embezzlement to abuse of office. The latest significant case included the imprisonment of the PP’s treasurer as part of a trial that prematurely ended Mariano Rajoy’s premiership in 2018.
Therefore, when certain commentators condescendingly urge the Spanish government to “find a political solution outside the courts,” they are ignoring one of political philosopher Montesquieu’s basic principles: the separation between the executive, judicial, and legislative powers that any self-respecting democracy should nurture. If the Madrid political establishment had the authority to control the country’s judicial system, would they allow their own representatives to be sent to prison?
Separation of powers is one of the strengths of Spain’s Constitutional arrangements, which are amongst the most sophisticated in the world according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. This was precisely one of the many democratic principles that the Catalan separatists standing trial tried to breach in 2017: not only did they seek to replace Spain’s Constitution with one that denied citizenship to many Catalans, but they also assumed powers to appoint their own judges. The systemic corruption scandals affecting Jordi Pujol, the Godfather of Catalan nationalism, played no small part in the nationalist elite’s decision to take to the hills and take half of Catalonia hostage with them.
Trial of Facts Instead of Ideas
In stark contrast with other democracies, Spain allows the presence of political parties that openly seek to overthrow the system and break up the nation. What is being judged in Madrid’s Supreme Court is not a set of ideas, but a complex series of actions that may amount to charges of misappropriation of public funds, sedition, and rebellion.
Consider, for instance, the xenophobic ideas of Quim Torra, the fervently separatist incumbent of Catalonia’s regional government. Torra speaks like a militant Catalan supremacist but, unlike his predecessors, he has not (yet) broken any laws. These are some of his finest phrases: “Here, in Catalonia, we no longer look south. We look north, where people are clean, cultured and happy”; “Weep for your country as you hear the beasts talk [Spanish speakers]. They are scavengers, vipers, hyenas, beasts in a human body, choking in hatred. Perturbed, vomit-inducing; there is perhaps a glitch in their DNA chain.”
His xenophobic, warmongering rhetoric extends to Spanish-speaking children: “In Barcelona, I often hear groups of children speaking Spanish; Spanish spreads, fast and voracious”; “I wish Spain sent in the tanks: that would earn us some sympathies”; “They are brainless creatures; can you name one of these Spaniards who have contributed to the history and progress of humankind?”; “Our nation risks becoming diluted like a sugar cube in milk, constrained by an avalanche of migrants.”
Catalan separatism’s willingness to exercise self-government without endangering the civil liberties or basic rights of all Catalans is highly questionable. Over the years, nationalism has created a “hostile environment” that extends to children who are prevented from studying in their mother tongue in constant breach of judicial rulings, small business owners who are fined for using Spanish instead of Catalan, and to any citizen or professional who publicly challenges compulsory nationalism.
Thousands have left the region in recent years, and academic studies abound that detail how Catalan nationalism has manipulated the education system, the public media platforms, and every aspect of public life to create a hostile environment for Catalonia’s non-nationalist citizens.
Whatever the outcomes of the trial, set to be announced in October, the proceedings have been an act of self-defense by one of the world’s twenty full democracies against what was a 21st-century coup perpetrated by a wealthy elite.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.