SANT JOAN DE VILATORRADA, Spain (AP) — Spanish authorities transferred nine politicians and activists on Friday from prisons in Catalonia to the country's capital, Madrid, ahead of a high-stakes trial later this month for their part in an attempt to secede from Spain.
The trial will begin Feb. 12 at the Supreme Court in Madrid, a court official told The Associated Press.
A panel of judges is due later to issue a judicial order specifying which witnesses will be called and setting out a calendar for the trial, expected to last about 3 months, the official said.
Twelve defendants — nine in preventive custody and three more who were released on bail — could be imprisoned for decades if they end up convicted of rebellion, the gravest of the charges. They could also be fined if they were to be found guilty of misusing public funds. Defense lawyers say they should be acquitted.
The "trial of the century," as it's been labeled by domestic media, has taken on a high political significance. Separatists in the northeastern region have made clear that they will use the proceedings to prove that they are being tried for their ideas, and in particular for advancing a secessionist agenda.
The proceedings will be public and televised.
The charges stem from the autumn of 2017, when separatists pushed ahead with a banned independence referendum on Oct. 1 and a violent police crackdown attempted to stop it. That brought the deepest political crisis in decades to Spain and its prosperous northeastern region.
Separatist Catalan lawmakers declared victory and made a unilateral independence declaration 26 days later, but received no international recognition.
Catalan President Quim Torra spoke publicly Friday to throw his weight behind the separatists.
Speaking in English and Catalan, Torra urged European institutions to support the 12 defendants, saying "no crime has been committed" because they were simply exercising their democratic rights. He urged the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to negotiate the Catalan region's self-determination.
Sanchez has said he is open to granting Catalonia greater powers of self-rule but insists the Constitution doesn't allow Catalonia to break away.
Government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa urged Torra to tone down his words and permit the two sides to move closer.
At the upcoming trial, prosecutors and state attorneys will be joined on the prosecution bench by a far-right party that has recently emerged in Spanish politics. Vox wants to use the trial to showcase its hard-line stance against regional secessionists and its defense of Spanish unity ahead of European and local elections in May.
Several more politicians, police officers and elected officials will also be tried in lower courts for their roles in the secession attempt.
The Catalan leader at the time, Carles Puigdemont, is campaigning for Catalonia's independence from Belgium, where he has avoided extradition to Spain.
Among those who remained behind and were put in custody are his former no. 2, ex Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez and the former speaker of Catalonia's regional parliament, Carme Forcadell.
Supporters gathered early on Friday at the gates of three different prisons in Catalonia, where convoys of the regional police emerged ferrying the nine defendants — seven men and two women.
Some activists tried to block the vehicles by throwing themselves on the road, but were quickly removed by police, television footage showed.
The nine defendants were grouped at Brians 2, a penitentiary some 40 kilometers (24 miles) west of Barcelona, before being escorted by the Civil Guard to two prisons in Madrid.
Parra reported from Madrid. Barry Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.