ON Tuesday, the trial of the Catalonian political prisoners begins in Spain. As the drama unfolds in front of the world, behind the scenes the Guardia Civil and the Spanish National Police will continue to round up less wellknown activists for their political “crimes”.

The criminalisation of political opposition is not merely confined to the prisoners currently on trial, but is in danger of becoming a routine response, part of the modus operandi of the Spanish state.

Three weeks ago, the left-wing mayors of the Catalan towns of Verges and Celra were arrested in a dawn raid along with a journalist from the magazine La Directa and 13 other activists.

They were arrested for organising peaceful protests demanding the release of political prisoners who are on trial this week.

The mayor of the Verges, Ignasi Sabater, is getting used to this treatment.

Several months ago he was brought in front of a court and accused of “hate crimes” and “discrimination” against “the Spanish nation and the corps of the Guardia Civil.”

Bizarre as it might seem, his experience is not unique. Numerous ordinary people who have dared to condemn police violence – or even talk about it in public – have been hauled in front of the judiciary, facing prison for “hate crimes” against the Spanish state.

The formal charge may seem bizarre, but it is an increasingly frequent one in the Catalonian conflict.

Some witnesses have been charged with such “hate crimes” for posting Facebook statements and teachers have been charged with the same offence for daring to discuss the violence of the Spanish National Police and the Guardia Civil in school classrooms.

If this article was to be published in Spain, it is quite possible it would be defined by the authorities as a “hate crime”.

As we note in our new book Building a New Catalonia, many of the contributors are incredibly brave, since they risk criminalisation for their peaceful actions or merely for expressing their political aspirations in words.

For example, one of our contributors was accused in a court of hate crime, another of “sedition”, and another is currently under investigation by a criminal court protesting against the detention of people from the grassroots community organization, Committees to Defend the Republic.

Another of our contributors, Jordi Cuixart, is in prison and will be on trial this Tuesday.

And another, Anna Gabriel, former parliamentary leader of the CUP party, is in exile in Switzerland.

It is one of the central tenets of any democratic system that political opposition is tolerated and that the criminal law is not used for overtly political purposes.

It is now impossible to discern a formal segregation between the machinery of the law and the machinery of government in Spain.

Shortly before the last election for the Catalonian Parliament, in December 2018, a list of 31 high-profile leaders was passed by the Guardia Civil to the judge leading the Spanish Supreme Court investigation into the October 1 referendum.

The document set out how each of them would be charged with “rebellion” and “sedition”, exactly the same offences that the political prisoners due to go on trial on February 12 are being held for.

This situation would be remarkable enough if it were only high-profile leaders who were singled out for political show trials. But the scale of criminalisation is incredible. A report published last year in Catalonia by five local councils (The Minotaur of ‘78) revealed that in a three-year period, 832 people have been charged by Spanish authorities with rebellion, sedition or “offences against the Crown”. Most are elected representatives; 712 of those charged are town mayors.

The Spanish government is deliberately using a tactic of criminalisation to depoliticise what is essentially a political struggle.

In this sense, using the law against the seditious is a well worn tactic: a weakened state seeks to reassert its sovereignty through the arbitrary use of law.

At the same time, opponents are dismissed as criminal, people that cannot, and certainly should not, be bargained with. This is the utility of criminalisation: to remove the political content from the dispute.

Despite the growing authoritarianism of the Spanish state, it is still not at all clear who is in really in control in Catalonia.

The question had symbolised the constitutional crisis in the weeks running up to the referendum when Madrid effectively launched a coup against the Cat alonian government and took unilateral control of the administration.

It found itself in, quite literally, what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben would call a “state of exception” in which the normal constitutional order is completely paralysed to enable the sovereign to assert absolute control.

The problem for the Spanish state is that it remains paralyzed by the same state of exception that it imposed in October 2018.

Madrid still really only has two choices. The first is to accept a permanent state of exception in Catalonia and maintain a strategy of criminalisation that allows it to claim the situation is too unstable for normal government to be resumed.

Or, the second is to release the political prisoners, drop all political charges and agree to allow a referendum to be run peacefully, without resort to violence.

The latter could not be regarded as particularly radical demands for a democratic state. The problem is that Spain looks less and less like a democratic state by the day.

What is happening is astounding by any standard of democracy. It is nothing short of remarkable that the justice system in a modern European state can proceed in this way, with lists of political opponents who are lined up for arrest and immediate imprisonment.

If this level of repression was happening anywhere else in the world, European politicians would be lining up to condemn the prime minister and demand the release of all political prisoners immediately. The regular arrests of political opponents are part of a very deliberate net-widening campaign on the part of the Spanish government in which the criminal justice system has been politicised to an extent that would probably not be possible in any other European country.

Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte explore the potential and the crisis of Catalonia in Building a New Catalonia: Self-Determination and Emancipation, forthcoming from Bella Caledonia and Pol:len