Why has Spain jailed Catalan leaders?

Unrest after independence leaders handed lengthy sentences in Spanish ‘trial of the century’

(Image credit: (Au Barrena/AFP via Getty Images))

Spain's Supreme Court has sentenced nine Catalan leaders who organised an unauthorised independence referendum to between nine and 13 years in prison.

The longest sentence was handed down to Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia's former vice president, who was found guilty of misuse of public funds and sedition.

As well as the nine jailed leaders, three other defendants were found guilty of disobedience and fined, but will not serve prison sentences.

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Catalan President Quim Torra called yesterday’s sentences as an “act of revenge, not of justice”, and described the defendants as “honorable and peaceful people”. The defendants have already said they will appeal to the European court of human rights.

The 12 politicians and activists had all denied the charges, which relate to their role in the independence referendum held on 1 October 2017 in defiance of the government in Madrid.

At the hearing, which was described as the “trial of the century”, prosecutors argued that leaders had executed a “perfectly planned strategy... to break the constitutional order and obtain the independence of Catalonia” illegally.

Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct culture, traditions and language. Home to around 7.5 million people, it has its own flag, anthem, and pro-independence regional government.

Catalan officials claim more than 90% of people who voted registered a desire to break free from Spain.

The court also issued a European arrest warrant for Catalonia's former president, Carles Puigdemont, who is living in self-imposed exile in Belgium. Writing on Twitter, Puigdemont described the jailings as a “barbarity”.

The BBC says that Catalonia's drive for independence has plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis for 40 years. The region had its autonomy suspended for almost seven months by Madrid after its failed breakaway bid.

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, said he hoped the verdict could serve as a means to bring Catalonia’s deeply divided society back together.

He told the Associated Press that work show now start “for a normalisation of the political social life in Spain and to heal the wounds of this Catalan society, but with full respect to the Spanish constitution”.

However, the verdict sparked immediate unrest, as demonstrators took to the streets across the region. Protesters also tried to blockade the main terminal at Barcelona airport. The Guardian says that a group called Tsunami Democràtic encouraged Catalonians to download more than 100,000 fake airline tickets in order to get past police lines.

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