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Catalan separatists’ long-awaited trial set to begin in Madrid

The trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders involved in a failed secession bid that plunged Spain into crisis starts on Tuesday, as tensions over the future of the wealthy region flare again.

Many of the defendants were transferred from their jail to Madrid’s Supreme Court in police vans for proceedings that start at 10 am (0900 GMT) in a high-security trial that will be broadcast live on television, with over 600 journalists accredited.

The trial is the “most important” since Spain returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Supreme Court president Carlos Lesmes told reporters recently.

Expected to last three months, the verdicts will be delivered several months later.

Separatists in Catalonia have dismissed the trial as a “farce” and politically motivated.

Before dawn on Tuesday, activists blocked several roads including part of a highway in the wealthy northeastern region, traffic authorities said, burning tyres and forcing vehicles to a standstill.

Activists have also called for protesters to hit the streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, at 7 pm (1800 GMT).

But many Spaniards support the proceedings because of widepspread anger at the actions of the then regional executive, which tried to break from the country in October 2017.

– Banned referendum –

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s former president who fled to Belgium days after a short-lived declaration of independence on October 27, is not among the 12 defendants.

Spain does not try suspects in absentia for major offences.

The trial’s main protagonist is therefore former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras, who opted to remain in Spain. He faces up to 25 years in jail.

“The trial begins that will teach the world the truth,” he tweeted the night before.

The 11 other accused include members of Catalonia’s then executive, the two leaders of powerful pro-independence associations, ANC and Omnium Cultural, and the former president of the Catalan parliament. They face jail terms of seven to 17 years.

Nine defendants have been charged with rebellion, with some also accused of misuse of public funds. They have all been in pre-trial detention for months, some of them for more than a year.

The three others are accused of disobedience and misuse of public funds.

After pressing ahead with an independence referendum on October 1, 2017 despite a court ban, Catalonia’s then separatist executive declared independence, sparking Spain’s worst political crisis since Franco’s death.

– Controversy over rebellion –

Even before the start of the trial, controversy has swirled over the charge of rebellion levelled at Junqueras and eight others.

Under Spanish law, rebellion is defined as “rising up in a violent and public manner”.

But the key, divisive question is whether there actually was any violence.

Public prosecutors argue the defendants “called on citizens to participate in the October 1 referendum knowing it was illegal and that explosions of violence could therefore take place”.

But supporters of independence deny the accusation of violence.

They instead denounce police violence during the referendum, images of which were seen in media round the world.

Catalan president Quim Torra was in Madrid to attend the first day of the trial, which is expected to focus on procedural issues.

Hundreds of witnesses have been called to testify, including former conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy who was in office at the time of the referendum.

– Early elections? –

Catalonia’s independence drive remains a political hot potato.

Tens of thousands of people joined a rally on Sunday in central Madrid called by right-wing and far-right parties against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who they accuse of “high treason” over his negotiations with Catalan separatists.

Sanchez, who came to power in June with the support of Catalan nationalist parties, had tried to defuse tensions by resuming talks which were called off under Rajoy.

But Catalan separatists insisted on their demand to hold a referendum, which Madrid fiercely opposes, and the talks broke down on Friday.

Sanchez’s minority government relies on the support of Catalan separatist parties to approve its 2019 budget.

But the separatists have vowed to block the budget during a crucial vote in parliament on Wednesday, opening the door for Sanchez to call an early general election.