NOT since the OJ Simpson trial in 1994 has a real-life courtroom drama been so hotly anticipated, as Catalonia’s jailed pro-independence leaders prepare to appear at the Spanish Supreme Court on charges which could land them with jail terms of 30 years.

Nine defendants are in custody, some of whom have been for more than a year, including former vice president Oriol Junqueras, ex-ministers Joaquim Forn, Raul Romeva and Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament, along with grassroots leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart.

Others who were accused include former president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium, and St Andrews academic professor Clara Ponsati, who was briefly Catalan education minister and responsible for ensuring schools, which were being used as polling stations, were open during the day of the independence referendum on October 1, 2017. She is still in Scotland.

Their trial – on rebellion and sedition charges related to the poll – will start on February 12 in Madrid and its sessions on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays will be broadcast live after judges rejected moves to allow international observers to attend the proceedings.

Lawyers say there is no case to answer as holding a referendum in Spain is not a criminal offence under its constitution, and insist the leaders are being tried for their ideas.

Alfred Bosch, Catalan foreign minister, told the Sunday National it was a political trial of which European leaders should be wary.

“It deepens the crisis,” he said. “We want their rights to be preserved – they’re European citizens and not only Spain, but Europe as a whole should be protecting their rights, which are being vulnerated all the time, especially for those who remained in Spain.

“They are facing very heavy sentences ... more than they ask for homicide or rape ... when we see no grounds for the crimes they are accused of, rebellion and sedition, which entail violence.

“There was no violence on their part so we think this is an unfair trial that shouldn’t take place and doesn’t help solve things – in fact it makes them harder.”

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Bosch said Catalan politicians had expected more from European authorities because “we are European citizens and our rights should be protected”. However, he was buoyed by increasing public support throughout Europe, in which the media had played a significant part.

“We want people in Catalonia, Spain and all over the world to have the truth and we think with the bare facts it can be proven that there’s repression against a legitimate political movement and these trials are flawed.

“It’s more like a mock trial where ideas and legitimate political organisations and their leaders are being tried.

“Those leaders and members of the Catalan government who went into exile are free citizens, just walking around in different countries across Europe, including the UK, while those who remained have been in jail for more than a year.”

While he conceded that Catalonia’s pro-indy lobby had a difficult task, Bosch said it helped that two UN special rapporteurs had said basic human rights there had been violated.

“They said the behaviour of the Spanish government during the referendum in 2017 and its aftermath has not been appropriate because of police brutality, trying to disrupt a legitimate vote, because the answer to a political issue should not go through the courts.

“It’s not the way to solve things, sending people to jail, cracking down on voters and breaking people’s heads open – that’s not a very intelligent move by the Spanish government.

“That’s not legitimate – that’s violating people’s rights, the right to vote, freedom of expression and political organisation.

“The attitude of the Spanish government has been defying human rights in general – we have the case and we’ll take it to the end.”

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LAWYER Andreu Van den Eynde, who is representing Junqueras and Romeva, said the charges had been exaggerated to allow the politicians to be suspended and to weaken the independence movement, which had enjoyed success in an advisory poll in 2014.

He said: “Something changed in Spain because they started seeing the pro-independence movement was really pushing forward and becoming the majority.

“Then they started designing a response to that dissident political movement that could really smash it down, so the rebellion charges act with that objective because something that’s so disproportionate has spread fear among Catalan people.”

More than 700 civic officials from cities across Catalonia had been charged with various offences, said the lawyer, which was part of a “masterplan” to weaken the movement.

The National: Supporters of the independence movement looked on in support and anxiety as a Guardia Civil convoy transferred the jailed leaders to MadridSupporters of the independence movement looked on in support and anxiety as a Guardia Civil convoy transferred the jailed leaders to Madrid

“Rebellion is something used to spread fear but at the same time it’s the only offence in the criminal code that allows a court to suspend politicians from office which they have done.

“It’s also the only offence that could really gather all the people in those cities in this kind of masterplan because they cannot charge the [speaker] president of the parliament [Carme Forcadell] with doing something she hasn’t done.

“So they needed to build a case based on these fake artificial story which is a plan to make a violent uprising, even if it is a nonsense.”

Bosch agreed: “We’ve seen that for months. They’ve been in jail for more than a year without bail, without trial – their rights have been vulnerated all the time.

“Some of them have been suspended from their salaries and positions in parliament.

“Subsequently, through the courts they’ve been trying to affect the result of the last elections [in December 2017 and called by the Spanish government] which were favourable to the pro-independence parties, which have a majority in parliament and which has enabled us to build a coalition government which is in favour of independence.

“Yes it has been happening and is still happening now. These charges are a step further than that – interference in democratic procedures through the courts, police brutality, suspension of home rule by the Spanish government.”

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Romeva was one of the nine prisoners transferred from a jail in Catalonia to Madrid on Friday in preparation for the trial, and said he hoped it would refocus attention on the independence drive.

He said: “We see the trial as an opportunity to address public opinion and society in Catalonia, Spain and obviously at an international level.”

Romeva was adamant that the crimes they were accused of were “crimes that European courts deny and that we have not committed. That is why the only possible sentence is acquittal. A (condemnation) sentence will always weigh on history and on Spain’s future.”

The 2014 independence referendum in Scotland is something Catalans can only aspire to at the moment.

However, Bosch said he saw it as a way of organising such a poll in the affluent, north-eastern region: “We would love to have talks with the Spanish government to find a path similar to the Scottish path.

“We know the result might not be what we desire – but we are more democratic than we are pro-independence activists so we would be happy with a solution that allows people to vote freely.”

Although judges had rejected requests for international observers to attend the trial, Bosch said he was pleased the proceedings would be televised: “We’re happy that people in general will be able to watch how the trial evolves and the international observers and journalists will also have that chance.

“We think we should seize this opportunity so the truth comes through and everybody realises that these people being accused of terrible things are actually democrats trying to push through a vote on the future of our country and we are entitled to that.

“So I think this will be an occasion – and the prisoners are encouraging us to get the world to follow the trials because that will make our case stronger.’’

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HOWEVER, he added: “The fact that the trials are taking place is actually a gross violation and whatever the sentences are, especially if they are very heavy, it will not help the cause of democracy, dialogue or talking about the best political solution we can find to what is not only a Catalan crisis, but also a Spanish crisis and which could easily turn into another major European crisis.

“I think Europe as a whole has the obligation of watching closely what’s happening in the Madrid courtroom and reaching their own conclusions because this could lead to a dead end and make things much harder for solving the conflict.”

As he prepared for what is being described in Catalonia as “the trial of the century” Van den Eynde said the prisoners were confident and looking forward to their day in court.

They had adapted to life in prison months ago and needed to face their trial: “Pre-trial detention means that every day is a day more of your penalty but when you get the final judgement, even if it’s a prison penalty every day is a day less.

“So they really want to start and finish this and face the court. They are confident.”

As an illustration of that confidence, Forn tweeted as they left for Madrid: “We move to Madrid. Thanks to the module mates #Lledoners with whom we shared these months, and also to workers and officials. Thank you for the support of so many people.

“We are determined to defend freedom, democracy and justice.’’