Trial of Catalan separatist leaders begins in Madrid amid protests
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."
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