IF a week is a long time in politics what then must it be like for the nine pro-independence Catalan leaders who have been in prison – in some cases for 14 months – awaiting trial for their part in the October 2017 independence referendum?

Their fate, along with the continuing enmity between the Catalan government in Barcelona and Spain’s central government in Madrid, has rarely been out of the headlines this year, most recently as four of them went on a three-week hunger strike in protest at Spanish authorities blocking their access to the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR).

They said they had submitted around 30 appeals, which judges had accepted and simply “put in a drawer”, as a tactic to hinder them in their attempts to raise their cases at the Strasbourg court.

Earlier this month – and after the hunger strike started – the Constitutional Court announced that judges would consider appeals of women facing charges in connection with the poll, in December.

They have since dismissed bids by Carme Forcadell, who is in pre-trial detention and Anna Gabriel, who fled to Switzerland, and sent the cases of former MP Mireia Boya, and ex-parliament bureau members Lluis Guino, Ramona Barrufet, Lluis Corominas, Joan Josep Nuet and Anna Simo to the Catalan High Court, instead of Spain’s Supreme Court.

They face lesser charges of disobedience, but the cases of the seven detained men, Forcadell and five other accused – who face the most serious allegation of rebellion – will remain with the Spanish court.

On the face of it, the prisoners appeared to have every cause for complaint. They are unable to approach the ECHR until they have exhausted the entire legal processes in their home state, in this case Spain, whose heavily-politicised judiciary appear to be accountable to no-one and who would be unlikely to welcome any intervention from Strasbourg.

Sedition, the organised incitement of civil disorder against a state’s authority, and rebellion – armed resistance to a government – are the two most serious charges that will be aired in court next month.

They also form the basis of allegations against former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, in self-imposed exile in Belgium, and other ministers who fled Catalonia to evade what some still refer to as Spanish justice.

Among their number was Professor Clara Ponsati – named this week as Person of the Year by our sister paper The National – a St Andrews academic who was drafted in by Puigdemont as Catalan education minister, before the referendum.

As such she was responsible for allowing schools in Catalonia to open as polling stations for the plebiscite – which then Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy tried to stop using ship-loads of Guardia Civil officers, who were not afraid to use their riot batons, shields and rubber bullets to deter would-be voters.

At one point civil guards dragged her across the ground outside her ministry.

However, Ponsati managed to get back to Scotland, where she fought a legal battle over a European Arrest Warrant that had been issued for her by Spain, seeking her detention on charges of rebellion and misappropriation of public funds.

Spain withdrew that warrant in July, leaving her free to travel anywhere in Europe apart from Spain, and she returned to work at St Andrews.

“I was very pleased to see that both the authorities and the people of Scotland treated me with the utmost respect and with a democratic approach,” she said.

“Both the courts and the police behaved in an extremely correct manner and did their job to the best of any democrat’s expectations.”

The professor said she was outraged at the continuing detentions in Catalonia: “It’s an outrage that they’re in prison, it’s an outrage that their human rights are not being upheld and it’s an outrage that there’s so much silence from the democrats of Europe about what’s going on.”

Of the hunger strikes, she added: “I’m appalled that they had to resort to this extreme way of expressing their protest.”

It had been hoped that the appointment of socialist Pedro Sanchez (below) as Spanish prime minister – after he orchestrated the ousting of Rajoy with support from independence-supporting MPs – might signal a change in approach, but that did not transpire.

If anything, the rhetoric has been little different to that of the previous government, and has included thinly-veiled threats to re-impose Article 155, which saw months of direct rule from Madrid following last year’s declaration of independence.

Catalan president Quim Torra put self-determination on the table when the two met for the first time in July, despite having been told that it was not up for discussion.

His demand was, as anticipated, immediately dismissed, which left him in something of a quandary – stuck between suffering the ignominy of having Catalonia’s autonomy withdrawn for a second time and appeasing the increasingly vocal independence lobby.

Their second encounter a fortnight ago was in Barcelona, where Sanchez held a Cabinet meeting – a high-security event that attracted thousands of protesters and saw more police violence.

SPANISH foreign minister Josep Borrell – a unionist Catalan – also rejected the independence option in a series of interviews he undertook as part of an international “charm offensive”. This included his faux pas during a discussion about why the US was more politically integrated than other countries, when he said: “All they did was kill four Indians.”

Pro-indy grassroots organisations such as the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural are a focal point for the independence lobby and have become increasingly restless as the stalemate continues.

They also have a vested interest in that Jordi Sanchez was president of the ANC and Jordi Cuixart heads Omnium, and both have been in prison since October 2017. Jailed former Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell has connections to both organisations.

Added to the mix is the new party launched on the anniversary of the independence declaration in October by exiled former president Carles Puigdemont, Crida Nacional per la Republica – the National Call for the Republic – which has attracted figures such as Torra and ANC president Elisenda Paluzie, who described the date as “quite bittersweet, a day of great hope that did not materialise”.

Many in the grassroots groups are leaning more towards direct action to secure self-determination, which could play into Madrid’s hands.

Lawyer Aamer Anwar represented Ponsati and is a frequent visitor to Catalonia.

He said the region was at a dangerous crossroads: “I think what we’ve seen over the past 12 months and now with prisoners on hunger strike, that the continuing silence from European leaders is deeply shameful.

“Catalonia is at a dangerous crossroads and tensions are starting to rise because the government has a mandate for independence and has failed to take action on it. All the attention has been focussed on the prisoners and ... those on hunger strike which puts all the onus on them.

“The government and those parties that claim to be pro-independence have a mandate but no real strategy – they’re like rabbits caught in the headlights. And we are now seeing a split in the unity of these parties.

“Any delay in fulfilling that mandate and keeping the focus on the prisoners will only benefit the Spanish state.”

Anwar said Catalan people are ready for self-determination, but they need leadership: “They want to take action now – whether that’s in the form of a series of general strikes or other specific action around the time of the prisoners’ trials, they need leadership and nobody is providing that. The pro-independence lobby is a mass movement and expects leaders to lead – that’s what they should do.

“The Catalan National Congress (ANC) are a significant and extremely important movement, but they are not in parliament.”

What happens next is anybody’s guess, but the portents do not appear favourable for the pro-independence lobby.