The judicial onslaught against Catalonia’s independence movement led by Barcelona’s examining court 13 has brought the heat up a notch by bringing charges that carry a prison sentence against twenty-eight of the thirty people indicted over the 2017 independence referendum. In a surprising turn of events, Spain’s Prosecutor’s Office has asked judge Alejandra Gil, who sits on the bench of court 13, to bring organised crime charges against all of them, which means they could spend between four and eight years in jail.

Judge Gil has not made a decision yet, but in the meantime the move means that the number of defendants who are now facing a possible prison sentence is up again. Until now seventeen people —mostly officials and government appointees— have been prosecuted for crimes that could carry a prison sentence, such as misuse of public funds, falsifying public documents and disclosing confidential information. However, the fresh move by the Prosecutor’s Office means that a further ten people are now facing prison time, which they weren’t when they were indicted for disobedience and neglect of duty. The prosecution, therefore, is looking to toughen up the crackdown on all of them by means of a manoeuvre that is nothing short of disturbing.

If judge Alejandra Gil agrees to the prosecution’s request, up to twenty-eight individuals will risk a prison sentence, either because they will be indicted for organised crime or —in some cases— because this new charge will be added to a count of misuse of public funds. Among them are Antoni Molons, the Secretary of Diffusion; Joaquim Nin, the Secretary General for the Presidency; Jaume Clotet, the General Director of Communication; Josep Ginesta, the Employment Secretary; Francesc Sutrias, the General Director of Assets; Aleix Villatoro, the Secretary General of International Relations and Foreign Policy; Núria Llorach, the acting General Manager of the Catalan Broadcasting Corporation (CCMA); Martí Patxot, the CCMA’s Marketing Manager; Vicent Sanchis, Director General of TV3; Saül Gordillo, Director General of Catalunya Ràdio; and Rosa Vidal, the Catalan administration’s Chief Auditor.

The definition of a criminal organisation

What aim does the prosecution pursue by requesting that organised crime charges be pressed against all these officials? The prosecutor’s brief states that all of them acted “in a manner that was concerted and sustained over a period of time” in order to achieve independence “by criminal means”, and that they did so “jointly and in a coordinated fashion”. So what are the “criminal means” it alludes to? According to the Prosecutor’s Office, it is the referendum on independence held on October 1, 2017, even though a hypothetical unilateral referendum on independence [in Spain] ceased to be a crime in 2005. Why, then, does the prosecutor seek indictments for organised crime? Obviously the goal is to mete out an even harsher punishment and make an example of a whole group of individuals who were first prosecuted over two years ago in a case that has not merely landed them in the dock, but has also paved the way for the Catalan political prisoners who are currently standing trial in Madrid’s Supreme Court on charges of rebellion and sedition.

For over a year Court 13 also probed the defendants for the crimes of sedition and rebellion, but at one point it had to cease and drop the charges as the Supreme Court took over. Shortly afterwards, Juan Antonio Ramírez Sunyer passed away. He was the judge who presided over Court 13 and had initiated the investigation following a complaint filed in January 2017 by [far-right party] Vox against Lluís Salvadó, Carles Viver i Pi-Sunyer, Carles Puigdemont, Carles Mundó, Oriol Junqueras and then former judge Santi Vidal. After his death, Ramírez Sunyer was praised by the president of Spain’s General Council of the Judiciary, Carlos Lesmes, who remarked that Ramírez “changed the course our country’s history”, as if he had been tasked with a historic mission for Spain: to eliminate Catalan separatism and preserve Spain’s unity.

Following Ramírez’s demise, there was a short period of uncertainty regarding the stance of his successor about the general cause against the Catalan independence leaders. When judge Alejandra Gil Llima eventually took over, there was a feeling that she might indeed see things in a different light, but since then she has moved the case along all the way to the indictments and, now that the examination phase is nearly over, there is a chance that she might grant the prosecution’s request of tougher penalties.

Organised crime?

It remains to be seen whether she will bring the sort of charges that are typically seen in cases of drug trafficking and people smuggling. The Prosecutor’s Office is effectively arguing that the Catalan administration was structured as a criminal ring. Since the 2010 changes, the Spanish criminal code includes the following definition of organised crime: “A criminal organisation is a stable group of more than two individuals operating over an undetermined length of time who jointly share a number of tasks or functions in a coordinated fashion and with a criminal intent”.

In an interview with TV3 last Wednesday, lawyer Judit Gené referred to the prosecution’s plan as “diabolical”. If it works out, a new time of great insecurity will begin, as such an interpretation of the criminal code would mean that virtually any organisation, business, association or club with three or more members could potentially be regarded as a crime ring, depending on the individual actions and activities of its members.

This would be the latest shambles in a criminal case that has played a key role in the greater strategy of police and judicial persecution of the Catalan independence movement that kicked off shortly after the declaration of sovereignty passed in the Catalan parliament on November 9, 2015. Who put that strategy into motion? Interestingly, it was Javier Zaragoza, one of the Supreme Court prosecutors in the trial of the political prisoners, who was the chief prosecutor in Spain’s National Court back then. In 2015 Zaragoza gave instructions to probe any hint of misuse of public funds, sedition and disobedience in the context of Catalonia’s independence process. This was a general “fishing” attempt that, nevertheless, gave the Guardia Civil —led by Lt. Col. Daniel Baena— a pretext to investigate pro-independence officials, thus paving the way for the investigation conducted by Court 13. It all started with Zaragoza and then branched out into several courts and proceedings and, somehow, now Zaragoza himself wants to put the cherry on the cake in the most symbolic, politically significant case of all.