MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish far-right party Vox has an active role in the trial of Catalan separatist leaders, seizing the opportunity to make political capital out of its fervent opposition to the independence movement.
Defendants are refusing to take their questions and one witness even walked out of the courtroom in protest.
Under the Spanish legal system, anyone can become a co-accuser - also known as a people’s prosecutor - and take part in court proceedings in such trials.
The Vox party, a newcomer to the Spanish political scene, has made use of this peculiarity to take on a role in the high-profile televised trial of the Catalan separatist leaders over their region’s failed independence bid in 2017.
Twelve are on trial on charges ranging from rebellion to misuse of funds, which they deny. They were arrested and jailed after Catalonia’s regional authorities organized a referendum, deemed illegal by a Spanish court, then unilaterally declared independence in October 2017.
Vox, whose platform focuses on nationalism and strongly opposes any concessions to regions, made its presence known on the national scene when it won seats in Andalucian elections in 2018.
Feeding on resentment against immigrants, high unemployment, and the Catalan independence drive, it was the first electoral success for a far-right party since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s following the death of dictator General Francisco Franco.
The trial taking place in a Madrid courtroom offers it a showcase in the battle for the votes of Spaniards upset by Catalonia’s independence drive - a main theme for all right-wing parties in a national election set for April 28.
“The independence movement acts as a driver (in the election) and Vox can capitalize on this thanks to its role as people’s accuser,” said Xavier Casals, a historian born in Barcelona and a specialist in Spain’s far-right.
“Vox is seen as the ‘punisher’, the one who has taken the secessionists to court for what they did in the separatist movement,” he said.
Many in the trial are not happy with that.
“For the sake of democratic and anti-fascist dignity I refuse to answer and be interrogated by Vox,” said witness Antonio Banos, a former member of the Catalan parliament for the far-left independent party CUP, before leaving the courtroom on Feb. 27.
It is a legal obligation for witnesses to answer questions at the trial and Banos and another ex-lawmaker were each handed a 2,500 euros fine and risk being charged with disobedience if they keep refusing to answer questions from Vox lawyers.
Unlike the witnesses, the accused are allowed to refuse to take questions and none have agreed to be interrogated by Vox.
Barcelona’s leftist mayor Ada Colau, cited as a witness, agreed to take questions but expressed her disapproval with having Vox in the courtroom.
“I am ready to take all the questions...but I have to tell the court my deep discomfort for having to respond to a far-right group,” she said.
Vox itself insists that it is there to defend the public interest and that its role in the trial is not political.
But outside the courtroom, it is hammering on about the Catalonia issue and presenting itself as a guarantor of Spanish unity.
“We must put a stop to secessionism. It wants to confront us, it wants to divide us,” Vox secretary general Javier Ortega Smith said last week at a conference on Catalonia in the European Parliament in Brussels. He is also one of Vox’s two lawyers at the trial.
Vox, also an advocate of anti-feminist and anti-immigration policies, is hoping to win seats in the April election which would be the first for a far-right party in Spain in 40 years.
It is not guaranteed that the trial, which will take months to finish and will still be running when Spaniards go to the polls, will bring Vox votes.
The conservative People’s Party, which has moved its own political agenda to the right with the rise of Vox, and centrist Ciudadanos have also put the unity of Spain and a hardline against Catalan independence at the top of their agendas.
“There is an over-concentration of parties in this battlefield. It seems to be a fight to see which one is the most Spanish of all,” said Beatriz Acha, lecturer at the Public University of Navarra and expert on far-right parties in Western Europe.
But the issue is helping Vox to be known by the broader public ahead of the election. Opinion polls forecast it could possibly get as much as one in eight seats, though surveys vary widely.
Writing by Jose Elias Rodriguez and Ingrid Melander, Editing by Angus MacSwan