MADRID (BLOOMBERG) - Catalan separatists who tried to break away from Spain in 2017 were handed jail sentences of up to 13 years by the Supreme Court in Madrid in an unprecedented ruling that marks a watershed in relations with the troubled region.
Former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras was handed the stiffest sentence while eight other activists were given jail terms of between nine and 12 years for their part in an illegal referendum that triggered a month of unrest that shook the Spanish state in 2017, according to a statement from the court in Madrid.
Carles Puigdemont, the regional leader who was the figurehead of the movement, remains in exile in Brussels after fleeing Spain two years ago.
In the Catalan capital of Barcelona, scores of protesters held a sit-down at the main train station on Sunday night (Oct 13) before being removed by police. Further demonstrations are expected on Monday.
The convictions will inject an extra dose of rancor into Spain's political system as the country prepares for its fourth general election in as many years on Nov 10.
Despite winning the last vote in April, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez failed to piece together a majority as he struggled to manage the divisions left behind by the Catalan crisis.
Sanchez's Socialists claimed almost twice as many seats as their nearest challenger but failed to reach an agreement with their potential partner in government in part because of their disagreements over Catalonia.
While the anti-establishment group Podemos is ready to allow the Catalans a referendum on independence, that is beyond the pale for Sanchez, wary of a backlash from party members in the rest of Spain.
Spain's third biggest party, Ciudadanos, would have been a natural partner for Sanchez - the two groups agreed a coalition deal in 2016 but lacked the votes to implement it - but the party's centrist economic stance was overwhelmed by its trenchant opposition to the separatists, opening a rift with Sanchez.
The court ruled that Junqueras was guilty of sedition and aggravated misuse of public funds for his part in organising the illegal vote and a month of protests that climaxed in an abortive declaration of independence in the regional parliament. He was cleared of the more serious charge of rebellion.
Raul Romeva, the regional government's former head of foreign relations, and Jordi Turull, its former spokesman, were found guilty on the same charges and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament, was sentenced to 11 years for sedition.
The four-month trial was the most politically charged hearing that Spain has seen since another Catalan leader, Lluis Companys, was tried in 1940 after he too had declared independence.
A military court under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco convicted Companys and sentenced him to death after hearing evidence for a single day.
Junqueras has a portrait of Companys on the wall above his desk in his party headquarters in downtown Barcelona.
Catalonia's push for independence added a Spanish dimension to populist surge that roiled politics across the western world following the financial crisis, bringing Donald Trump to power in the US and setting the UK on course to leave the European Union.
In Spain, it toppled one prime minister - the conservative Mariano Rajoy - and left the parliament so divided that the country has been unable to pass a budget since.
In Catalonia, the regional government is controlled by separatist parties, but hamstrung by the ideological rifts between them, while hundreds of companies including CaixaBank SA and Naturgy Energy Group SA have moved their legal domicile out of the region as a result of the crisis.