MADRID - Spain's Supreme Court on Monday sentenced 12 prominent former Catalan politicians and activists to lengthy prison terms for their roles in a 2017 bid to take the wealthy region out of Spain and create a new European country.
The landmark ruling, after a four-month trial, inflamed independence supporters in the northeastern region bordering France where Catalan identity is a passionate issue.
Nine of the Catalans on trial in association with their efforts to achieve independence received between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition. Four of them were additionally convicted for misuse of public funds, and three more were fined for disobedience. The Spanish Constitution says the country can't be divided.
Spain's caretaker prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, said he hoped the sentence would mark a watershed in the long standoff between national authorities in Madrid and separatists in the Catalan capital Barcelona. Sanchez said the court's verdict proved the 2017 secession attempt had become "a shipwreck."
He urged people to "set aside extremist positions" and "embark on a new phase" for Catalonia.
Catalan Separatist Leaders Sentenced up to 9 and 13 years in Prison Former head of Catalonia's regional government called the ruling an atrocity
Authorities will respond firmly to any attempt to break the law, Sanchez said in a live television address, as thousands of people joined protest marches in the Catalan capital Barcelona shortly after the court's verdict. Some protesters held banners saying, "Free political prisoners."
Grassroots pro-secession groups previously had warned that guilty verdicts would bring what they called "peaceful civil disobedience." Spanish authorities deployed hundreds of extra police to the region in anticipation of the ruling.
"Today, they have violated all their rights. It is horrible that Europe doesn't act," 60-year-old civil servant Beni Saball said at a Barcelona street protest, referring to those convicted.
But retired 73-year-old bank clerk Jordi Casares said he wasn't surprised by the verdict.
"It is fair because they went outside the law," he said, walking out of his home on a Barcelona street. "I hope that after a few days of tumult by the separatists the situation can improve."
Catalan regional president Quim Torra described the verdict as "an act of vengeance."
"The Spanish state's refusal to launch a dialogue and seek a democratic solution to the political conflict will not stop us from acting on our determination to build an independent state for our nation," Torra said in a speech in Barcelona.
In their ruling, the seven Supreme Court judges wrote that what the Catalan leaders presented as a legitimate exercise of the right to decide was in fact "bait" to mobilize citizens and place pressure on the Spanish government to grant a referendum on independence.
Although prosecutors had requested convictions for the more severe crime of rebellion, which under Spanish law implies the use of violence to subvert the constitutional order, judges convicted nine defendants of sedition, implying that they promoted public disorder to subvert the law.
Ex-Catalan regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras was sentenced to 13 years for sedition.
He and three other former Cabinet members - Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull and Dolors Bassa, who were sentenced to 12 years - were also convicted for misuse of public funds.
The former regional parliament speaker, Carme Forcadell, was given 11 ½ years in prison; ex-Cabinet members Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull 10 ½ years each; and grassroots pro-independence activists Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart got nine years.
Three other former members of the Catalan Cabinet - Santiago Vila, Meritxell Borràs y Carles Mundo - were fined for disobedience.
All of them were barred from holding public office.
The trial featured over 500 witnesses, including former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and 50 nationally televised hearings.
At the center of the prosecutors' case was the Oct. 1, 2017 independence referendum that the Catalan government held even though the country's highest court had disallowed it.
The "Yes" vote won, but because it was an illegal ballot most voters didn't turn out and the vote count was considered of dubious value. The Catalan Parliament, however, unilaterally declared independence three weeks later, triggering Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
Seven separatist leaders allegedly involved in the events, including ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, fled the country and are regarded by Spain as fugitives.
The separatist effort fell flat when it won no international recognition. The Spanish government stepped in and fired the Catalan regional government, with prosecutors later bringing charges.
Defense lawyers argued that the leaders of the secessionist movement were carrying out the will of roughly half of the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia who, opinion polls indicate, would like the region to be a separate country.
The Catalan leaders - jailed for nearly two years while their case was heard - have grown into powerful symbols for the separatists. Many sympathizers wear yellow ribbons pinned to their clothes as a sign of protest.
The verdict will almost certainly become another rallying point for the separatist cause, which is going through its most difficult period in years with its most charismatic leaders behind bars or abroad.
The Catalan separatist movement's two main political parties disagree on the next moves, and the grassroots organizations that have driven the movement are starting to criticize the lack of political progress.
The verdict also came less than a month before Spain holds a general election on Nov. 10 to choose a new government, and the political handling of the Catalan independence question will undoubtedly be one of the top issues.