Even if the rare sun-soaked day evoked more a sense of Catalonia than it did Normandy, I wasn’t expecting to see the name of Carles Puigdemont on the Guardian’s front page this morning. He has written an op-ed, citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s defense of the Birmingham marches, condemning violence, and attacking the Spanish state. He closes with a plea to the world: “The Catalans are a dignified people and deserve to be treated with dignity.”
It seems like years ago that pictures out of Spain shocked the rest of us in Europe, though it has been but sixteen months since the raids, thrashing fists, black helmets, blue vans, striped flags, and all that, scenes boisterous and pained like a Goya black painting. Things heated up and then, thankfully, cooled down. After the referendum on Catalan independence, Spain imposed direct rule on the region; the loudest separatist voices were locked up or fled overseas, including Mr. Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan region at the time of the vote who escaped to Germany and then Belgium. The state regained control and the issue melted from the headlines.
The reason it has returned, and why Catalonia’s former leader is writing articles, is because while the dust in the streets has settled, the rancor in the courthouses has only just begun. Twelve senior leaders of the separatist movement are now on trial for sedition and rebellion (Mr. Puigdemont is not among them, Germany having declined to extradite him to face anything more serious than the misuse of public funds and Spain having given up on him). The Spanish judiciary is facing a barrage of criticism. The stirrings of this were felt at the beginning of the drama, when a judge controversially granted police a warrant to enter Catalan government buildings and seize ballot papers, and are now in full swing as the trial opens. More than 100 Spanish legal experts have signed an open letter condemning the rebellion charges, and Catalan leaders have denounced the process as a political farce. The fact that the far-right Vox party has managed to join the prosecution as a private party does not bolster the government’s protestations that the trial is purely a product of the independent judiciary. One of the detained Catalan leaders has also put her case to the European Court of Human Rights. These are complex circumstances—the referendum itself was illegal under Spanish law, and the state intervened to prevent it by seizing ballots and closing polling stations, actions often involving significant clashes and exposing Spain, an authoritarian regime until just over forty years ago, to accusations of state violence. Trying the accused will prove controversial and will test the independence of the judiciary in a European Union state that has faced a threat to its cohesion like no other has in recent times.
Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist government is pursuing a softer line on Catalonia than did its Conservative predecessor under Mariano Rajoy. But the thousands that marched on Sunday in protest against proposed talks with Catalan leaders, brandishing the Spanish flag and the cause of Spanish unity, show that the burning passion that the issue continues to arouse is not restricted to Catalan nationalists. The Spanish state has an obligation to try those who have broken its laws. Its courts must rise to the challenge and set out a new path: the legality of paths to self-determination in a modern democracy. Only then may the ghosts of Spain’s past, and the specters of its future, move a little closer to rest.