February 1, 2019 / 1:19 PM / 17 days ago

Catalan separatist leaders moved to Madrid for trial on rebellion charges

BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - Jailed Catalan politician Raul Romeva hopes the upcoming trial of separatist leaders at the Supreme Court in Madrid will refocus attention on the region’s push for independence from Spain.

FILE PHOTO: Catalan Foreign Affairs chief Raul Romeva holds a news conference in Brussels, Belgium October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

The trial of Romeva and 11 others — described by Supreme Court president Carlos Lesmes as the most important in Spain since democracy was restored after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 — will begin on Feb. 12, the court said on Friday.

Spain’s public prosecutor is seeking prison terms of up to 25 years on charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds for their role in Catalonia’s failed 2017 break away from Spain.

“We’ve sought to be heard for a long while, but they silenced our voices and image with jail,” Romeva told Reuters.

The 47-year-old was one of nine secessionists jailed without bail in late 2017 and early 2018 who were transferred on Friday from prisons outside Barcelona to facilities near Madrid.

“We see the trial as an opportunity to address public opinion and society in Catalonia, Spain and obviously at an international level,” Romeva said in an interview conducted in a written question and answer format just before the transfer.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who needs the support of Catalan nationalists to pass laws, favours dialogue to give Catalonia more autonomy but has ruled out any moves towards independence.

Romeva said he and his co-defendants are accused of “crimes that European courts deny and that we have not committed”.

“That is why the only possible sentence is acquittal. A (conviction) sentence will always weigh on history and on Spain’s future,” he wrote.

Lesmes pledged the trial would be fair. “We bring out the truth from the facts and not from opinions,” he told reporters in Madrid.

Romeva, a veteran of the separatist movement, was in charge of foreign relations in the Catalan government led by Carles Puigdemont that unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2017 after a referendum deemed unconstitutional by Madrid.

He has also been a member of the European Parliament.

URGES SANCHEZ TO BE BRAVE

A group of protesters waving the Catalan flag gathered outside Lledoners prison near Barcelona before dawn on Friday. Some tried to jump in front of the vehicles carrying their movement’s leaders.

The independence bid brought Spain to one of its worst political crises since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. The central government briefly took direct control of the region and rounded up prominent separatist leaders.

Romeva said he respected the decision by colleagues including Puigdemont — now living in self-imposed exile in Belgium — to flee Spain to avoid arrest.

The trial should conclude in April or early May, Lesmes said, with a verdict not likely to come before late June.

The defendants have asked to testify in the Catalan language, Lesmes added, although the investigation phase has been carried out in Spanish.

FILE PHOTO: Former Catalonia cabinet member Raul Romeva of Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) delivers a speech during their final campaign rally ahead of regional elections in San Vincenc del Horts, Spain, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina/File Photo

Romeva urged Sanchez to be brave and make a viable offer to the Catalan parties if he wants their support for his budget proposal in a first vote next month.

He does not regret the Catalan government’s actions and said Spain would eventually have to accept reality.

“Holding a referendum is not a crime ... Denying reality will never fix anything,” Romeva wrote. “We’ve always sought and offered dialogue, and the answer has always been denial and repression.”

Additional reporting by Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Editing by Isla Binnie and Catherine Evans

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