(Bloomberg) -- Spanish judges began their historic trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders as the legal reckoning started into an illegal bid to declare independence from Spain.
The accused, led by former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, took their seats in the Supreme Court facing a panel of judges and flanked by lawyers. Andreu Van den Eynde, representing Junqueras and Raul Romeva, the regional government’s former head of foreign affairs, spoke for two hours arguing his case that they’re facing a political trial.
The trial set to last about three months is being billed by the government as one of the biggest in Spain’s democratic history as it probes the events of late 2017 when former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont tried to split the region from Spain. While pro-independence Catalans claim Spain is using the trial to crush a legitimate independence movement, the government says it shows the rule of law responding to an illegal attack on Spain’s constitutional order.
Another lawyer, Jordi Pina, who represents three suspects, said their right to an impartial judge had been violated. He also dubbed the trial as political. Junqueras is facing up to 25 years in jail.
The start of the trial is threatening to derail Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s efforts to pass a budget in parliament on Wednesday. He needs the votes of pro-independence Catalan parties to ensure the spending plan gets passed. Failure to pass the budget could push Sanchez to call snap elections.
Earlier in the day, campaigners blocked a major highway outside Barcelona and streets in the Catalan capital to show support for the accused. Meanwhile, police deployed outside the court building in Madrid ensured protesters couldn’t interfere with the proceedings.
Among the audience following the start of the trial was Catalan regional President Joaquim Torra, a staunch secessionist. The trial judges will hear from about 500 witnesses, including former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Vox, an emerging right-wing party that is gathering support among conservative Spaniards angered by the secessionist campaign in Catalonia, is part of the prosecution under a rule that allows third-parties to present accusations in criminal cases. The prosecution also includes the public prosecutor and the state attorney with each party working separately and seeking different penalties.
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