By TOBIAS BUCK
The criminal trial that Artur Mas faces on Monday could mean a 10-year ban from public office. But the former president of Catalonia hopes his prosecution will also be a rallying cry for the cause of independence from Spain.
Three years ago, Mr Mas’s Catalan government organised an informal referendum to demand independence for one of the country’s largest and most prosperous regions. The non-binding poll was opposed by the Spanish government and went ahead in defiance of an order from Spain’s constitutional court — leading to the trial that Mr Mas will face next week on charges of contempt of court and breach of trust.
Amid a surge in separatist sentiment in Catalonia, with mass demonstrations in favour of secession and an openly pro-independence government, Mr Mas believes his trial’s significance extends beyond the Barcelona courtroom. It offers the Catalan independence movement a chance to galvanize public opinion — and Mr Mas is looking forward to his day in court with relish.
“For us personally this is not a gift. This can halt our political careers for several years,” he says in an interview ahead of the hearing. “But for the project — the creation of a sovereign state — this is positive because it mobilises people. It mobilises even people who are not in favour of independence.
“This is a political trial that has very little foundation in law,” Mr Mas says. “That is what we will tell the court. And we will say that we are convinced that no crime was committed — and that we are willing to take this case all the way to the European court in Strasbourg.”
The prosecution of Mr Mas and two other senior government officials comes at a moment of heightened tensions between Spain and Catalonia.
Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president who replaced Mr Mas last year, has vowed to hold another independence referendum in September — but says this time the ballot will be legally binding. Madrid is opposed to any plebiscite, and will probably win backing once again from the Spanish courts to outlaw any new vote.
According to Mr Mas, it is not just the three defendants who are on trial but also the Spanish state. He accuses Madrid of meddling in the case and of using a “politicised” judicial system to inflict punishment on Catalan independence leaders, saying: “I know of no other democratically elected president who has been put on trial simply for allowing people to vote.”
Spanish leaders have repeatedly rejected accusations of interference, and insist that Mr Mas is being prosecuted like any other citizen.
Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, says he is ready to talk to the Catalan government about a new system of regional finances and other practical concerns — but not about independence. In the view of the government and the judiciary, Spain’s constitution leaves no room for Catalan self-determination, let alone for independence and statehood.
The poll that is at the centre of Mr Mas’s trial was eventually held in November 2014, but was widely boycotted by Catalan voters who oppose independence. Out of 5.4m eligible voters in the region, 2.3m took part — with 80 per cent casting their ballot in favour of an independent state of Catalonia.
Mr Mas said he would accept the ruling of the court but would appeal any guilty verdict. He also said he felt bound by the court’s decision only “as long as we are under Spanish jurisdiction”.
“If Catalonia has sufficient strength to change the status quo and to build a [separate] state, this would change radically,” he says.