Jelle Klaas (Amsterdam, 1980) is a lawyer and litigation director for the Dutch section of the International Commission of Jurists (known in his country as the "Dutch Committee for Human Rights"). This week he has been present at the Supreme Court, in Madrid, where he had to queue as a member of the public to be able to perform the task of an international observer of the Catalan independence trial. But he successfully managed to obtain a place in the Madrid court and, although he points out that his vision is a preliminary one, admits to being "concerned" as he leaves the courtroom.
What is the International Commission of Jurists?
It is an international organization based in Geneva with branches in many countries around the world. It is made up of lawyers and judges and its mission is to promote human rights. In the Netherlands they call us the "Dutch Human Rights Committee".
Why have you been involved in the trial of the Catalan independence leaders?
They asked me to attend as an international legal observer, as I am a human rights lawyer and our organization works in the field of the right to protest in the Netherlands. We have experience and expertise on human rights connected to protest and in related areas, such as the freedoms of expression and assembly.
Were you concerned about the situation of these rights in Spain?
I had read a lot about the case and was very concerned. When they asked me, I was very pleased to be able to come to Madrid to investigate it.
Did you see the images of the 1st October referendum day?
Yes. And those images made an impact on everyone who saw them. Even this week, former prime minister Rajoy said in his testimony that he didn't like them.
Is it normal for observers to enter as members of the general public?
It's the first time that it's happened to me. I have been an observer of trials in the Netherlands, and they don't give you a special place, but nor are you treated like a member of the public. And in this case, there are many people who want to follow the trial, which complicates it even more. Clearly there are worse things in the world, but it would have been logical to reserve places.
Even if you hold a view that is unconstitutional, or is perceived as such, you have the right to express yourself
Do you have any explanation for this?
As far as I know, the court said that the presence of international observers was not necessary because it was being televised. It's not the same, but the most important thing is to be able to see what happens, what questions are asked, how the accused are treated. It would not have been difficult to reserve a space for international observers.
And what did you see in the courtroom?
Lots of things. It was very, very interesting. I saw the testimonies of some of the defendants. I focused especially on Jordi Cuixart. And I also saw two days of witnesses testifying. It was very lengthy, sometimes very technical, but also very interesting. There is a lot to be said about this trial and about the human rights clash, the clash between what people want and the constitutional rights.
And what conclusions have you reached?
I focused exclusively on human rights. I'm still writing my report, but I'm very concerned about what I saw. Even if you hold a view which is unconstitutional, or is perceived as such, you have the right to express yourself. I was particularly concerned about the case presented by the prosecution, asserting that, because, in their view, the referendum was unconstitutional, then tweeting about it, or organizing a protest or peaceful civil disobedience in response are also unconstitutional.
How do you see the public prosecutors' role, then?
Up till now, I see serious human rights problems in the prosecution, which have been reflected in their questioning. I don't think they fully understand the right to protest. And we shouldn't forget that for more than a year [most of the defendants] have been in prison and, for Jordi Cuixart, they are calling for 17 years in prison. That is a very, very, long sentence for some demonstrations.
Is the pre-trial prison damaging their right to a defence?
Not necessarily. The defence teams have the ability to contact their clients. But I do believe that it has a very chilling effect on people who want to express themselves. We should be very, very, very wary about using the criminal code and prison and the police to deal with people who hold an opinion different to our own and want to express it.
Do you think the rebellion is being proven during questioning?
As far as I understand it, violence is a necessary element of rebellion. In this case, it makes no sense and I can't imagine how they can prove it. I have heard the prosecutors speaking about injured police officers, destroyed cars and a blockaded building. I have serious doubts that this is the violence that rebellion requires. And I also have serious doubts that it can be attributed to [the defendants].
Are they having a fair trial?
The trial in itself is relatively straightforward. Lawyers are able to ask all the questions, the defendants are able to explain almost everything they want about the facts ... But there are other serious issues. On the one hand, that it is being held in Madrid. But also that they have been in preventative custody for such a long time. I think everyone will be asking whether it is a political trial or not.
"Violence" makes no sense right now and I can't imagine how they can prove a rebellion charge.
And do you think so yourself?
I don't know yet. What I do know is that it is a political question which is the basis of many of the problems. And I repeat: the criminal code should not be used to solve problems like these.
Right now, are there reasons to appeal to Strasbourg, as defendant Carme Forcadell did this week?
I think it is completely logical to go to Strasbourg. But first let's see what the court says. If it frees them all, then it won't be necessary to go there.
How would a conflict like this be solved in the Netherlands?
That's a complicated question, because in our country the right to protest is also under pressure. But 17 years is a huge sentence. I have never seen a call for such an extreme sentence in the Netherlands. Nor have I seen such huge protests or political problems like these. Sincerely, I hope it can be resolved in another way. But I'm not sure about that...
Do you remember any similar case?
My experience is mainly in Holland, and I can't think of any case like this.