IT has been called “the trial of the century” and it opened yesterday at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid with lawyers for 18 former politicians and independence activists arguing that it should be held in the High Court of Catalonia.

The accused – nine of whom are in prison – are charged with rebellion, sedition, disobedience and misuse of public funds for their part in last October’s independence referendum.

Four of them are three weeks into a hunger strike in protest at Spanish judges hindering their access to European justice. However, central government authorities argue the rights of Joaquim Forn, Jordi Sanchez, Jordi Turull and Josep Rull are guaranteed by Spain’s “independent” judiciary.

Yesterday’s proceedings before a panel of seven judges were aimed at determining the high court’s competence to judge the cases.

Defence lawyers argued the trial should be heard by the top Catalan court rather than Spain’s highest court in Madrid because no crime was committed outside of Catalonia.

Prosecutors countered that the events that led Catalan MPs to declare independence on October 27 last year had ramifications outside Catalonia – affecting all Spaniards – and Madrid was the proper venue.

Supreme Court judges rejected similar defence appeals during the investigative stage of the cases and a final decision is expected later this week after yesterday’s four-hour hearing.

Much is at stake, with the independence activists aiming to prove they are being prosecuted for their ideas – particularly their republican agenda – by a judiciary that is highly politicised.

Should the case remain in the supreme court, former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, along with Forn, Sanchez, Turull, Rull and the other jailed defendants, will be moved from Catalan prisons to Madrid, a move that is likely to trigger large protests.

Following yesterday’s opening session, the 11-strong team of defence lawyers said they had “little confidence” the case would be transferred to the Catalan court.

Andreu van den Eynde and Jordi Pina said it was important that they denounced fundamental breaches of human rights.

“We have begun a campaign of denunciation and this is the beginning of a race that will end up in trial and judgement and it should unmask the strategy to eliminate political dissidence,” said Van den Eynde, who represents Junqueras.

Their main argument is that no alleged crime was committed outside Catalonia, a principal requirement for having the case heard in the supreme court.

Marina Roig, who represents jailed activist Jordi Cuixart, said a “political problem is being judged”, while Van den Eynde added: “They are politicians doing politics.”

Perhaps the most concise argument was advanced by Olga Arderiu, who represents former speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell.

“The accusations say acts have been committed outside of Catalonia but afterwards they do not specify any,” said Arderiu.

“Embezzlement also has many arguments, but the public heritage is of the Generalitat [Catalan Government] and therefore resides in Catalonia.

“If the declaration of independence had been produced, yes it would affect all of Spain. But if independence had been declared it would have been done in parliament, therefore … in Catalonia.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Catalan and Spanish governments could meet on Friday as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez holds a council of his ministers in the capital Barcelona. Although a meeting had earlier been ruled out, Madrid has confirmed that Sanchez was willing to meet President Quim Torra.

Protests are planned ahead of the gathering, and remarks by Sanchez yesterday denying the existence of political prisoners, are likely to raise tensions further. The Spanish PM said: “It’s a deceit, a great lie.”