Prosecutors Javier Zaragoza (L) and Fidel Cadena (2nd L) during the trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders at the Supreme Court on February 12 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ EMILIO NARANJO
Prosecutors Javier Zaragoza (L) and Fidel Cadena (2nd L) during the trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders at the Supreme Court on February 12 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ EMILIO NARANJO

Madrid — The lead defendant in a rebellion case against Catalan separatist leaders refused to answer prosecutors’ questions as he took the stand on Thursday at Spain’s most politically explosive trial in decades.

Former regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras, 49, is one of 12 separatists on trial over their 2017 independence bid.

Nine of them are accused of rebellion and three face lesser charges of disobedience and misuse of public funds.

Junqueras rejected the charges and branded the case politically motivated.

“I consider myself to be a political prisoner,” Junqueras told the panel of seven judges as he took the stand for the first time at Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid. "I am being prosecuted for my ideas and not for my actions. I will not answer questions from the accusers.”

Junqueras faces 25 years behind bars if he is convicted of rebellion and misuse of public funds for pushing an independence referendum in October 2017 in defiance of a court ban. The referendum was followed by a declaration of independence by leaders in the northeastern region.

The move sparked Spain’s deepest political crisis since its transition to democracy in the 1970s.

Junqueras is the first of the 12 defendants to testify in the trial, which started on Tuesday. He has been held in pre-trial detention for more than a year.

“Nothing we did is a crime, nothing, absolutely nothing. Voting in a referendum is not a crime,” he said. “Working peacefully for independence is not a crime. We have not committed a single one of the crimes we are accused of.”

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

In Spanish law, rebellion is defined as “rising up in a violent and public manner”. A key question at the trial is whether there was any violence. Prosecutors point to “violent incidents” during protests orchestrated by two grassroots groups in the lead-up to the referendum.

Activists surrounded a Catalan economy ministry building on September 20, 2017 while police carried out a search inside to try to stop the vote from going ahead. Three police vehicles were vandalised and their occupants forced to flee into the building, where for hours a group of police officers remained trapped by the crowds outside.

Prosecutors also accuse the separatists of fostering “acts of violence and aggression against police officers” on the day of the referendum. Supporters of independence deny the accusation of violence. They instead condemn a police operation to shut down the referendum, which saw voters beaten with batons and dragged away from polling stations.

Images of the police crackdown were broadcast around the world.

“Voting is not a crime, preventing voting from going ahead by force is,” Junqueras told the court.

Junqueras is a practicing Catholic who speaks Spanish, Catalan, English and Italian. A history professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, he also once did research at the Vatican. He was elected a European lawmaker in 2009 and picked to head the pro-independence, left-wing Catalan ERC party in 2011.

Top members of the ERC came to Madrid to support Junqueras on his first day on the stand. The trial is expected to last three months, with verdicts  handed down a few months later.

Catalonia’s former president Carles Puigdemont is not among the defendants, having fled Spain days after the independence declaration on October 27. Spain does not try suspects in absentia for major offences.