MADRID — After listening to 422 witnesses in four months, the Spanish Supreme Court on Wednesday closed the trial of 12 leaders of the Catalan independence movement accused of staging a rebellion during their botched attempt to secede from Spain in 2017.
A verdict in the trial, one of the most important in Spain’s judicial history, is not expected until the fall, by which time Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is hoping to form a new government, led by his Socialist Party.
On Wednesday, the 12 defendants took center stage, delivering closing statements during which they repeatedly denied charges that they orchestrated violent acts during their unsuccessful secessionist push, which culminated in an unconstitutional referendum followed by a declaration of independence in October 2017. The defendants also argued that the Catalan conflict should be decided by politicians, not Spain’s top judges.
“I sincerely believe that the best for everybody — for Catalonia, Spain, Europe and all — is to return this question to the terrain of politics, which it should never have left,” Oriol Junqueras, one of the defendants, told the court. Mr. Junqueras is the former deputy leader of Catalonia, and still leads the Esquerra Republicana party, which recently became the largest Catalan party within Spain’s Parliament.
The secessionist conflict has cleaved Catalan society and helped reshape Spain’s politics amid increased party fragmentation.
In April, Prime Minister Sánchez won a national election but without a parliamentary majority. He is scrambling to form his next government, while hoping to circumvent the Catalan separatist parties that helped him into office unexpectedly a year ago. Mr. Sánchez later failed to negotiate a settlement of the territorial dispute.
The Spanish government insists that Catalonia is an issue of national sovereignty that requires no external mediation. Still, Spain’s territorial conflict has coincided with other tensions within the European Union, as nationalist parties have made headway in several of the E.U.’s member states and Britain has been negotiating its exit from the bloc.
The case has also spilled over Spain’s borders because the defendants have sought the backing of international institutions. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights, which is based in Strasbourg, unanimously rejected a case brought by Catalan separatist politicians who argued that Spain had violated their fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly.
Separately, however, a working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a nonbinding report that demanded the release of Catalan politicians whom it found had been jailed arbitrarily ahead of their trial. The Spanish government immediately denounced “mistakes and distortions” in the report, and also questioned its authors’ impartiality.
During the wait for the Supreme Court ruling, the focus of the dispute is expected to shift to the European Parliament, where a heated debate has now started over whether the indicted separatist politicians who won seats in last month’s European elections should be allowed to join the assembly .
Among the elected politicians are Mr. Junqueras and Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia who has been living in Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain.
On Wednesday, Pablo Casado, the leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party, called on Mr. Sánchez to stop politicians like Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Junqueras from joining the European Parliament, where they could claim legal immunity. Mr. Casado said Spain could not afford to be represented in a European institution by “xenophobic nationalists.”
Earlier this month, Javier Zaragoza, a public prosecutor, told the court that the defendants had tried to stage a coup, with Mr. Junqueras as “the engine of the rebellion.”
Mr. Junqueras faces up to 25 years in prison if found guilty of rebellion, sedition and misusing public funds. All the defendants have denied the charges, but some of their lawyers acknowledged this week that some events of 2017 could have amounted to acts of disobedience. Under Spanish law, such disobedience can carry a fine and a prohibition from holding office.
That sentence was imposed in 2017 against Artur Mas, a former Catalan leader, for organizing a nonbinding independence vote in Catalonia in 2014 that had already been declared illegal by the government and Spanish courts.
There is no formal deadline for the Supreme Court’s seven judges to render a verdict, but a ruling is expected before November. By then the defendants will have spent two years in prison, after being denied bail in 2017.
The case has also been closely followed in other parts of Spain, like the Basque region, which has its own separatist history. “It’s clear to us that this has been a show trial, to frighten anybody else who wants to challenge the state,” said Idoia Elorza, a Basque Nationalist Party official who traveled to Madrid this week with some colleagues to follow the trial’s closing days.
The trial’s most divisive issue has been whether the independence drive involved violence — and whether the leaders of the movement could be held personally accountable. On Wednesday, Jordi Turull, a former member of the Catalan government, said it was “an insult to Catalan society” to suggest that a few leaders had manipulated more than 2 million voters into taking part in the October 2017 referendum. “Catalans are not sheep,” he told the courtroom.
Other defendants also forecast that the independence movement would keep growing — with or without their help — and ultimately force the Spanish government to allow an independence referendum in Catalonia.
“The ballot box can never be a threat to democracy,” said Jordi Sànchez, a defendant who faces up to 17 years in prison if convicted. “In Catalonia, there will be ballot boxes and votes and we will have them thanks to an agreement with the Spanish government, like in Scotland or Quebec.”
If convicted, the defendants could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, or they could be pardoned by Mr. Sánchez. However, Spain’s prime minister is under intense pressure not to make further concessions to separatist politicians, particularly following his unsuccessful effort to reopen a political dialogue with them last year. The talks went nowhere, and instead the separatists helped vote down Mr. Sánchez’s budget in February, forcing him into a snap election.
The defendants’ closing statements, which referred to philosophical writings from Socrates to Hannah Arendt, also warned the judges directly that their ruling could significantly impact Spain’s political future. “You have the responsibility of not worsening a political situation,” Jordi Sànchez told the judges. “I would not like to be in your shoes now.”