Spain’s ‘trial of the century’ reopens historic wounds

Catalan independence leaders face decades in jail. Meanwhile, the fate of a ‘shrine to Franco’ remains undecided. Barney Cullum reports from Madrid.

Almost eighty years have passed since the Spanish Civil War. Yet the Valley of the Fallen, Spain’s vast monument to the casualties of both Nationalists and Republicans, continues to commemorate just two individuals by name. Those names are Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco. The former introduced fascism to Spain and was killed in the first months of fighting; the latter adapted and sustained it through a dictatorship that ruled until 1975.

When General Franco finally died – peacefully in his sleep – politicians of the left and the right resolved upon a democratic transition rooted in a ‘pact of forgetting’, rather than a reckoning. Collective amnesia and amnesty were applied both to the sins of the dictatorship and to the convergences that shaped the Civil War. ‘If we don’t talk about our differences, they don’t need to become an issue again,’ was the rationale.

Francisco Franco's monument. A 150m high cross stands above. Photo: Barney Cullum

Perhaps it made sense at the time. But the events of the past two years suggest the policy was merely storing up fall-out for the future. It comes to a head this month. Twelve Catalan leaders are beginning their trial in Madrid’s Supreme Court – nine defendants must answer the archaic-sounding charges of sedition and rebellion against Spain – after pursuing a path of self-determination for the region through 2017’s referendum. The allegations are without precedent and the offences translate as large-scale and violent subversion. Conviction for rebellion, coupled with misuse of public funds, carries a jail term of up to 30 years.

Carles Puigdemont, the face and political figurehead of the unauthorized referendum, is not among the defendants. German and Belgian courts refused to recognize international arrest warrants issued by Spain for the former President of Catalonia. Gonzalo Boye, the lawyer who successfully represented Puigdemont in Europe, tells New Internationalist the accused are ‘sovereignists’ rather than separatists. ‘If a country can’t cope with its history, then it will have real problems. The Basque region will also be watching this trial with interest.’


Noisy north

Spain is a state of 19 ‘autonomous communities’ and it was the Basque Country, until recently, which had been most intent on pursuing greater autonomy. The terror group ETA was notorious across three decades of bloodshed.

So sensitive is Spanish authority to the break-up of the state that Valtonyc, a Mallorcan rapper who champions Catalan independence, was sentenced to jail for referencing ETA in a lyric about police harassment. The line – ‘let them be as frightened as a police officer in the Basque country’ – was penned as a teenager, when the artist was peripheral. Human rights group Amnesty International called the punishment ‘draconian’ and symptomatic of ‘a sustained attack on freedom of speech.’ Belgium’s courts agreed, allowing him leave to remain after he fled Spain.

Valtonyc, who remains the subject of an international arrest warrant, tells New Internationalist he ‘will not return to the Spanish state until Catalonia becomes independent. Freedom of expression is a right for the unprotected to have an opinion about the protected, [but] the unity of Spain is more important for them.’

Valtonyc and Boye expect Spain’s Supreme Court to send another statement of zero tolerance when they deliver their verdict this summer on the trial of the Catalan 12. Others tend to agree, even though many seem unsure how prosecutors will be able to substantiate the violence component integral to the offence of rebellion.

Valtonyc at a performance.  Photo: Josep Beltran

Conservative caution

‘There are a lot of accusations in Spain that the judiciary’s actions are articulated by the Spanish government,’ says Ignacio Jurado, a politics professor at King Carlos III University in Madrid. ‘I don’t believe this and I believe the judicial system is independent. But being independent doesn’t mean being apolitical. The judges in the Supreme Court have their own ideology. We have a judicial system that tends to be right-wing and the sense of state obedience is quite embedded within it.’

The trial will examine clashes that happened between police and independence supporters a month prior to the referendum, during the search of a Catalan government building that led to physical clashes. Prosecutors will also seek to demonstrate that the later declaration of independence amounted to incitement of a violent uprising. Ninty per cent voted in favour of independence, on a turnout of 42 percent, according to local officials.

Whether Catalonia’s 2017 actions were instigated ‘from above’ by politicians, or ‘bottom-up’ by citizens, is heavily debated, adds Jurado. ‘The pro-independence movement is well organized and well-articulated all over Catalan society. At points it has been controlled by grassroots organizations. In those instances we have seen leaders who do not need to face an election handling control. The shift to the unilateral route [pursuing the 2017 referendum without authorization from central government] is one that more long-sighted politicians possibly wouldn’t have followed.’

Dismissed Catalan politicians Toni Comin, Lluis Puig and Meritxell Serret attend a protest in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 12 February 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir


CDR Catalunya is an influential and confrontational voice in the movement, often mobilizing high profile demonstrations. A senior member of the network agreed to speak to New Internationalist under condition of anonymity. ‘The truth is that after 40 years, the [Francoist] regime is still present in all state structures. Those in charge of the democratic transition wanted us to believe it was the best model but the Spanish constitution makes any important change impossible. The Spanish government should have allowed the referendum and called for a ‘no’ vote.’

Pedro Sanchez has been Prime Minister since last June and needs the support of Catalan parties after forming a minority government. Upon taking office, the 46-year-old sought to calm tensions by promising to relocate Franco’s remains to more modest surroundings. Catalans argue it could have been achieved in days. However a replacement site has still not been agreed with the Church and Franco’s family. A mooted city-centre cathedral reinternment is now deemed a backward step, representing a more convenient place for Franco sympathisers to gather. The proximity to a royal palace also makes it an alarming potential terror target, with police prevented from entering places of religious worship.

Meanwhile the publicity generated by discussing the plan has seen pilgrimages to Franco’s current resting place soar. A visitor guide admits that flowers are being laid on the Caudillo’s tomb on a weekly basis by members of the public, in addition to those brought by a foundation set up by the dictator’s daughter. Tour numbers to the Valley of the Fallen have trebled. For some the monument is a poignant commemoration to beloved relatives; for others it signifies the largest religious fascist structure in Europe.

Prime Minister Sanchez’s latest gesture, to partially confront the past, present and future, has been to agree to Catalan requests for an international mediator to broker conflict resolution talks. The conservative opposition party immediately responded by funding a demonstration in central Madrid to ‘throw Sanchez out of office for doing deals with coup-plotters; for being blackmailed by those who want to break up Spain.’ Thousands answered the call, occupying Madrid’s Plaza Colon on 10 February. Counter protests and strikes have also been initiated in Barcelona.

The trial of the Catalan 12 will be streamed live by Spanish and Catalan broadcasters for the next three months, before a verdict is delivered in the summer. Over 600 international journalists will report on its proceedings. It’s been tagged Spain’s ‘trial of the century’. The European Court of Human Rights represents the only avenue for appeal. This time around, things might be harder to forget.