Ever since more than two million Catalans voted in the “illegal” October 1, 2017 independence referendum — in the face of Spanish police violence — the Spanish state’s judicial and media loudspeakers have repeated a simple, deafening message. It is that October 1 happened because a rebellious mob was set in motion by the Catalan government of then-president Carles Puigdemont.
Acting in cahoots with secessionist mass organisations — including the “terrorist” Committees for the Defence of the Referendum (CDRs) — it deliberately flouted the rulings of the Constitutional Court forbidding the referendum.
The secessionists also offered violent resistance to the Spanish National Police (CNP) and Civil Guard, sent to Catalonia to “uphold the law”.
The Catalan police were the “armed wing” of this plot. This was “proven” by the decision of their command, headed by chief commissioner Josep Lluís Trapero, not to support the Spanish forces in their “valiant efforts” to confiscate ballot boxes and close polling stations on referendum day.
That story line became an official truth on October 14, last year, when the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced former Catalan ministers and independence movement leaders to 99.5 years jail for “sedition”, “disobedience” and “embezzlement”.
In was generally expected that condemnation of Trapero and three senior members of the Catalan interior ministry and police department — who were being tried separately by the National High Court on charges of “rebellion” — would follow.
After all, Trapero’s boss, former interior minister Joaquim Forn, was now serving a ten-and-a-half year sentence.
In April 2018, the Spanish Civil Guard staged a highly-publicised arrest of community activist and CDR member Tamara Carrasco, suspected of “sedition”, “rebellion” and “terrorism”.
Since the twelve Catalan leaders were condemned a year ago, the trials of Trapero and Carrasco have been the most visible of the 2850 legal proceedings against Catalan pro-independence and pro-sovereignty activists.
‘Star witnesses’ flop
However, on October 19, the official narrative, until now largely accepted in most parts of the Spanish state, suffered a big hit.
It came from an unlikely quarter — the National High Court itself. By a two-to-one majority, the judges of its first section found Trapero and his three fellow defendants not guilty on all charges.
Its judgment amounts to a meticulous, if indirect, demolition of the Supreme’s Court’s version of events, and provoked the dissenting judge, chamber head Concepción Espejel, to issue a 461-page statement. This was clearly aimed at rousing the defeated prosecution to challenge the verdict before a hopefully more sympathetic appeals court.
In the Trapero case, some legal commentators had expected that Espejel and her fellow conservative judge Francisco Vieira would form a majority in support of sedition against progressive judge Ramón Sáez.
However, the worst Vieira saw in the behaviour of the defendants was “disobedience”, which carries no jail sentence. Obliged by Spanish judicial procedure to create a majority opinion, Vieira sided with Saéz. Lining up with Espejel in support of sedition would have meant imposing a minimum jail term of four years.
The underlying reason for the verdict was the poor performance of the prosecution’s “star witnesses”. Diego Pérez de los Cobos, coordinator of Spanish police operations on October 1, and Daniel Baena, Civil Guard colonel in charge of hunting up evidence against Catalan independence leaders, could not offer up anything more than personal opinions.
The judgment effectively describes Baena as a liar for having stated under oath that Trapero had been nominated police commissioner to guarantee police force support for independence, had secret meetings with Puigdemont, and was part of the clandestine committee organising the referendum.
“These three points do not correspond to reality,” said the judgment. As for Pérez de los Cobos, “his viewpoint adds nothing of value to proof of the charges”.
A fairy tale exposed
After the surgical dissection of its witnesses by defence counsel Olga Tubau, the prosecution withdrew the charge of rebellion, replacing it with sedition.
However, this manoeuvre was to no avail, as shown by the judgment’s assessment of the behaviour of the Catalan police on referendum day.
With tens of thousands of people having occupied polling stations to guarantee the holding of the referendum and hundreds of thousands lining up to vote, the Catalan police confiscated material only where it could be done without conflict.
For the Supreme Court, that was “proof” that former interior minister Forn had deliberately used the magistrate’s order to confiscate election material as cover for having his police protect the referendum.
The Trapero judgment takes the opposite view: “In that context of intense social and political conflict, emphasising the principles governing police action should not necessarily be interpreted as a pretext, because this was a strategic commitment established by the normative framework [of police operations].”
Invoking European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) standards, the judgment also questions the need for police violence. “The use of force against defenceless citizens, against the elderly and entire families, cannot in this situation be the solution for achieving compliance with a legal order, no matter how legitimate that is.”
It therefore implicitly supports Trapero against Pérez de los Cobos: “No police officer should have been given as the sole purpose of his or her action preventing the referendum at all costs.”
The crime against Carrasco
The Trapero verdict came two weeks after another Civil Guard frame-up was demolished.
Two and-a-half years after the Civil Guard arrested Carrasco on suspicion of “terrorism”, a Barcelona court cleared her of the charge of having “intended to cause a public disturbance” on October 6.
The right-wing Madrid media, which at the time of Carrasco’s arrest devoted front pages to the Civil Guard’s “discovery” of a connection between the CDRs and terrorism, buried information about her acquittal in their local news sections.
Carrasco’s traumatic journey from terrorist suspect to innocence reveals much about Spanish police methods. Arrested for planning violent protest actions against the detention of Puigdemont in northern Germany in 2018, Carrasco was initially the subject of a terrorism charge brought by the National High Court.
Yet, even at the outset, there was a contradiction between the seriousness of the charge — especially in the aftermath of the August 2017 Barcelona terrorist attacks — and the court’s decision only to confine Carrasco to her home town and withhold her passport.
More than a year later, the presiding judge concluded that the terrorism charge would not stick and had a lower Barcelona court hear the case as one of violation of public order.
This was because the entire evidence against Carrasco consisted of a WhatsApp voice message. She always maintained that this so-called “blueprint for a terrorist act” (allegedly interrupting train and road traffic, in the case of Puigdemont being jailed) was not an instruction to the CDR network. The message was, in fact, a report to friends in a closed WhatsApp group about discussions at a local CDR meeting and options for action being considered in left-independentist circles.
During testimony, Civil Guard witnesses contradicted themselves about where they had found the WhapsApp message.
In her sentencing statement, Judge Maria Lluïsa Maurel Santsusana was caustic: “It is frivolous that a police investigation into major crimes such as terrorism, rebellion and sedition not indicate the source which provided the voice message on which the entire case is built and that supports the charges against Ms Carrasco.”
In addition, the prosecution had provided “no proof to support the claim that the accused had distributed or publicly broadcast the WhatsApp message” while nothing in the way of protests even occurred on the days the “terrorist acts” were supposed to take place. These facts alone “make acquittal necessary”.
Spanish justice — a lottery
These two sentences reveal more than ever the nature of the Spanish justice system: a battleground between worshippers of Spanish state unity and professionals with some commitment to due process.
Trapero can now have his job back if he wants it, while his former boss Forn remains in jail.
This grotesque contradiction was repeated on October 19, when the High Court of Justice of Catalonia, brought down its decision in the case of four members of the Catalan parliament’s speakership board. Despite Constitutional Court prohibitions, they had allowed the parliament to vote on the law enabling the October 1 referendum.
The four were banned from standing for public office for 18 months and fined €30,000 each, a sentence that will be appealed as far as the ECHR.
Yet, this unjust sentence even looks fair compared to the Spanish Supreme Court’s treatment of former speaker Carme Forcadell for precisely the same “offence”: 11.5 years jail and banned from standing for public office.
Don’t expect, however, any quick resolution of these irrationalities. With the People’s Party (PP) in opposition, its reliance on mates on the judicial bench rises, especially for holy wars against “communists” and “secessionists”. It also still has the numbers in the Spanish Supreme Court, where any appeals against the recent fair sentences can end up.
Nonetheless, use of that tribunal to quash them will now come at a rising political price. If the Supreme Court overturns the verdict in the Trapero case, what will be the impact in Catalonia? And what will be the reaction of European justice?
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent.]