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Spanish court gears up for high-stakes trial of Catalan separatists

Spanish judges preside over a preliminary hearing at the Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday Dec. 18, 2018. Spain's Supreme Court held a preliminary hearing ahead of a trial of 18 former Catalan politicians and activists are being accused of rebellion, sedition, disobedience and misuse of public funds for their parts in last yearÕs attempt to secede from Spain. (Ballesteros/Pool Photo via AP)

A preliminary hearing in a rebellion case against Catalan separatists has displayed some of the dynamics between defence and prosecutors expected during a trial that is likely to dominate Spanish politics.

Eighteen former politicians and activists from the Catalonia region are charged with rebellion, sedition, disobedience and misuse of public funds for their parts in an attempt to secede from Spain last year.

At Tuesday's hearing, a panel of seven magistrates heard from defence lawyers who argued the trial should be heard by the top regional court in Catalonia rather than Spain's highest court in Madrid.

Prosecutors countered that Madrid was the proper venue, saying the events that led regional legislators to make a unilateral declaration of independence on October 27 2017 had ramifications outside Catalonia.

The country's top court also has jurisdiction, prosecutors argued, because the secession attempt affected all Spaniards.

Supreme Court judges rejected similar defence appeals during the investigative stage of the case. A final decision is expected later this week.

If the top court keeps the case, former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, activist-turned-politician Jordi Sanchez and 16 other defendants are expected to appear there when the trial proceedings get under way at the end of January.

Four defendants are three weeks into a prison hunger strike to protest against what they deem unfair treatment by Spain's judiciary.

Central government authorities say there is no reason for the strike and the defendants' rights are guaranteed by Spain's independent judiciary.

The "trial of the century", as it has been labelled by domestic media, has taken a high political significance. Separatists in the north-eastern region have made clear they will use proceedings to prove that they are being tried for their ideas, and in particular for advancing a secessionist agenda.

In addition to prosecutors and state attorneys, a far-right party that has recently emerged in Spanish politics sits on the prosecution bench.

Vox wants to use the trial to showcase its hard stance and its defence of Spanish unity ahead of European and local elections in May next year.

MAIN PHOTO: Spanish judges preside over a preliminary hearing at the Supreme Court in Madrid this week. Ballesteros/Pool Photo via AP