The laying of formal charges against 25 of the 28 Catalan political and civil leaders investigated for their roles in last year's independence referendum is by no means a minor step in the judicial process of the case. But neither is it anything like the end, or even the beginning of the end. We are, probably, just at the beginning of what will be the largest court case in recent years to be heard in Spain. And naturally, in Catalonia too.
If things continue as they are, the nine Catalan leaders currently in prison could spend years there. This is no secret. Not only lawyers but also the prisoners themselves and people close to them are aware of this. They are imprisoned, first until the trial, and afterwards to serve the sentences they receive, unless the court changes course, or pardons arrive. Something that right now is inconceivable given the way the Spanish government continues to apply the political pressure.
However, what exactly are the 25 defendants now facing? Only Artur Mas, Marta Pascal and Neus Lloveras, all three of them in the circles of the PDeCAT party, will not go to trial - even though the judge considers Mas to be the brain behind everything. As for the rest, they will have to stand in the dock, it seems, and accept sentences, which on paper range from 6 months of prison to 35 years.
First of all, in this next stage of the judicial process, Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena has summoned all the accused, to formally advise them of their legal situation in the case. For three days, they will parade in front of the entrance to the court which they already know only too well. Those that are currently in prison, and those that are on bail. The only ones missing - or, at least, likely to be missing - will be the exiles. All those who appear will be told the offences they are being charged with and the actions that are attributed to them, and they will be given the right to explain themselves.
There are 13 people accused of rebellion, who face maximum prison sentence ranging from 10 to 35 years, according to the role that they played. The criminal code envisages up to three levels of sentences.
Sentences of 25 to 30 years of prison are to be awarded for those who are considered the leaders or those who induced the actions. From 15 to 25 years, for the “second rank of commanders”, as the law puts it. Those who executed the orders. And from 10 to 15 years for the participants in this execution.
The maximum possible sentences that each of the defendants face will be known before the trial and the prosecution will set these according to its own criteria. And it seems likely that they will be at the top end of the range, in order to be exemplary.
Those accused of rebellion are: Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Toni Comín, Josep Rull, Dolors Bassa, Clara Ponsatí, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Cuixart, Carme Forcadell and Marta Rovira.
Despite this list, if those of the accused who are in exile end up being extradited for the crime of misuse of public funds, it will only be possible to try them for this offence. In this case the Public Prosecutor will not be able to demand sentences for rebellion.
There are 14 Catalan office-holders who are charged with misuse of public funds. This is the offence that allows judge Llarena to demand extradition of the exiles from the countries where they are now based. However, this is not considered as an offence against the body politic, but rather a crime associated with corruption.
The misuse of funds is punished with prison. But the sentences are relatively low, ranging from 2 to 6 years. They can be reduced due to extenuating circumstances and if a period of less than two years is decreed for a defendant, that person would be able to avoid serving any actual jail time. The punishment can also include disqualification from holding public office.
Those accused of misuse of funds are Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Meritxell Borràs, Toni Comín, Josep Rull, Lluís Puig, Carles Mundó, Dolors Bassa, Santi Vila, Clara Ponsatí, Joaquim Forn and Meritxell Serret.
Judge Pablo Llarena has also included a third offence in the charges listed for the majority of those accused. In reality, with the description of the relevant facts that he provides in this initial written indictment, with reports made by the Civil Guard and previous legal rulings, this offence - disobedience - is the only one of the three that has any foundation. People did disobey. This is obvious, and has been stated by all of the accused, publicly. Both with institutional declarations as well as in statements to the media.
They announced a declaration of independence and a process to carry it out, and they disobeyed all the prohibitions which Spain's Constitutional Court decreed on the matter.
But disobedience is the least serious of the crimes. The prison sentences set down for such an offence range from 6 months to 1 year, and may be substituted by a fine. Thus, guilty verdicts for this offence alone would avoid the entry into prison en masse of an entire government and a series of other MPs - those who were members of the Catalan parliament's presiding Bureau.
Those who belonged to the Bureau in the Catalan legislature which was ended last November have been charged with disobedience: Lluís Corominas, Lluís Guinó, Anna Simó, Ramona Barrufet and Joan Josep Nuet. Those accused of this offence also include part of the Catalan government - Meritxell Borràs, Lluís Puig, Carles Mundó, Santi Vila, and Meritxell Serret - along with the former CUP party deputies Mireia Boya and Anna Gabriel.
Neither former Catalan president Artur Mas nor Marta Pascal nor Neus Lloveras have been charged with any offence. If the prosecution does not appeal the judge's decision in this respect, the case will be closed for them and they will not go to trial. Pablo Llarena, however, does not present the reasons for, first, including these three in the investigation, and then not charging them, even though he attributes to Mas the status of the driver who set in motion all the machinery of the independence process.
Once completed the upcoming judicial processing in the Supreme Court involving those imprisoned, the defendants could request transfer to a Catalan jail. The prisoners themselves have to ask for this.
The argument in all cases is that the accused who are in pre-trial prison have to be near the court investigating them, in order for the court to have them at its disposal when it wishes. And given this, the most likely option is for them to be retained near Madrid.
However, once they have appeared in the middle of April, and the final stage of the case begins, their lawyers will be able to ask for transfers and Llarena will have to decide whether to grant these, or, alternatively, argue that they need to be close at hand in order to be able to summon them when necessary.
Disqualification from office
Once the charges faced by all defendants have been finalised (appeals can still now be lodged), the process of suspension and disqualification of the accused from holding office will begin. With the charges issued and a good part of the Catalan government in prison, Llarena has free rein to ban them from holding office.
Regarding the government in exile, if there are no extraditions or imprisonments, the judge is limited and can only issue suspensions.
However, the issue of new European arrest warrants opens new incognitos in this regard. Much will depend on whether the prosecution service of each of the countries where the exiles are based see evidence of a possible offence and motive for extradition to Spain.
If any of the countries where accused Catalan leaders are living in exile see evidence of an offence and extradites them to Spain, the accused will arrive in Madrid already under detention.
They will be taken to a National Police station in the Spanish capital, will be processed and handed over to judge Llarena. Depending on the timing, those accused could spend nights in the police cells before their declaration before the judge, who almost certainly would then order them to prison, given the offences with which they are charged and the risk of escape.
The European judicial route is open.
Jordi Sànchez has already received a first ruling on precautionary prison measures given by the United Nations where the High Commission of Human Rights has warned the Spanish state that it has to respect Sànchez's constitutional rights.
Oriol Junqueras, Joaquim Forn and Jordi Cuixart have taken their case to the United Nations's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. This case was presented a month ago aiming to obtain a ruling from the UN on whether the precautionary prison decreed against the three breaches the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights.
But the path which is yet to be opened is that of the European Court of Human Rights. To be able to resort to the Strasbourg court, it is necessary to exhaust all resources at the Supreme Court. Junqueras, Forn, Sànchez and Cuixart are in this situation and all that is missing is for the lawyers to present the case to the ECHR.
For this to move forward for the other defendants, all other appeal possibilities have to be exhausted for them as well. And this means that appeals must first be lodged against the charges laid, then against the provisional prison decreed by judge Llarena, and the appeal must also be taken to the Constitutional Court. All of this, in the case of those already imprisoned has taken almost 5 months. And more or less the same length of time can be envisaged before the trial begins, although Llarena in fact has a year to complete the inquiries for the case.
Meanwhile, the Civil Guard continues investigating for judge Llarena. Its last action was to ask for a secret element in the inquiry. And the judge has given them a month.
For part of the inquiry to be made secret suggests searches and phone taps may take place. Therefore, within the next four weeks, there could be news of police actions of this type.
Until this time is up, Llarena will not close the inquiry. Then, everything will depend on the new evidence that the Civil Guard can turn up.
And once the whole investigation is closed - the deadline for this being March 2019 - the judge has to carry out all the procedural formalities to finish his investigation, transfer the case to the criminal branch of the Supreme Court which is to hear the trial, and afterwards ask the different elements of the prosecution, public and private, to present in writing their formal demands for the number of years of prison each of the 25 defendants should, in their views, serve.