Misc 21/02/2019

Former Catalan minister Rull in court: "a referendum is possible under the Spanish Constitution"

Rull insisted that not one cent of public funds was spent on the 2017 independence referendum and that he did not know about the procurement of ballot boxes

5 min
Josep Rull durant el seu interrogatori al Tribunal Suprem

MadridThe face-off between Josep Rull and prosecutor Consuelo Madrigal and state attorney Rosa María Seoane was tense, and forced the presiding judge, Justice Manuel Marchena, to intervene with a warning that there would be no debate over the questions and responses of the defendant and the prosecution.

The day started with Rull's statement —he refused to take any questions from the lawyers that represent Vox [Spain’s far-right rising star], acting as an individual plaintiff in the trial, and decried that the Catalan language was seen as a "threat" [in court]. Like his colleague Jordi Turull had done during his own cross-examination on Tuesday, Rull argued that the pro-independence project was a way to "channel the will of the people". "What mechanism could be clearer than seeking a democratic mandate through a plebiscite election?” asked the JxCat representative, referring to the September 27, 2015 elections, and posited the referendum as "the most basic way" to express the popular will, emphasizing that "if there is willingness, it can fit within the Constitution." He stressed this thesis in the last question by the state lawyer: "If there is political will, there is enough leeway for a referendum within the Spanish Constitution. Rajoy said that he could neither call one and didn’t want to. But he would have been able to, indeed”.

Rull did not deviate from the narrative laid out by Turull when asked about the October 27 declaration of independence, although he included some new adjectives to refer to the parliamentary gesture. "It was a political declaration, formal and solemn, but the strength it has is as a statement of political will," said Rull, who said that he had voted Yes in “a secret ballot". "When violence is not used and a political declaration of independence is made, it is not subject to criminal prosecution," he added.

In response to the session on Tuesday, the Prosecutor's Office chose to focus on the alleged disobedience and misuse of public funds, and asked Rull about the additional provision 40 of the Catalan budget, the budget line of just over six million euros earmarked for electoral processes, which the minister admitted was intended for the referendum. "It is perfectly possible for the Catalan authorities to hold a referendum in agreement with Madrid" said Rull, who tried to clarify his response, which differed from Turull’s the day before. "I was not aware of any kind of disobedience," he said, despite the fact that prosecutor Consuelo Madrigal pointed out that at that time the Spanish Constitutional Court (CC) had already suspended some parliamentary resolutions, such as the breakaway declaration of November 9, 2015.

"Spectacular" demonstrations

Madrigal's obsession to find out if the decree calling the referendum was signed "late" or "early in the morning" to avoid the CC contrasted with the interest in any possible facts that would go towards proving the rebellion or sedition charges. The prosecutor asked Rull if the people’s demonstrations were one of the pillars of the roadmap signed by the political parties and pro-independence civil society organizations on March 30, 2015, and indicated that in this document they were labeled as "spectacular", which, as explained by ARA’s fact-checking pieces, is a word that did not actually feature in that document, but only in the ANC’s [the Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots group] own road map and always accompanied by the adjective "peaceful". "Should the existence of civic, peaceful, and multitudinous mobilizations, such as on September 11, be the subject of a question in these terms?", asked Rull, which led to an intervention by Manuel Marchena, president of the court, who reiterated that the defendants should not assess the relevance of the questions. Justice Marchena, as he did with Turull, intervened several times to warn Rull to stick to the prosecutor's questions and to not make "reproaches." "Do not turn your questioning into a cross-examination of the prosecutor," he warned.

One of the issues that the ex-ministers have pledged to agree on in their statements is to disassociate themselves from the delivery of election material for the referendum. Turull made it clear on Tuesday that he knew nothing about the logistics, despite being convinced that there would be ballot boxes. In the same terms, Rull stated that he saw the ballots for the first time on October 1 and that he did not know who printed or ordered them. "It placed my trust in my country," said the JxCat representative, when asked about his statements in the days leading up to 1-O in which he expressed confidence that the ballot boxes would be delivered to the polling stations.

Despite Rull's collateral participation in the organization of 1-O, Madrigal wanted to investigate the misuse of public funds, and again brought up the Catalan government's agreement of September 7, 2017, in which the entire cabinet took it upon themselves to organize the vote. "There was no expenditure," Rull made clear. When asked if he was willing to take responsibility otherwise, he replied that he was, and that it would have been the ministers who would have had signed off [on any purchases]. "But they found nothing," he pointed out, when questioned about Unipost [a private postal company tasked with delivering referendum documents]. In addition, Rull recalled that there could not have been any misuse of funds because the Spanish government had "seized the financial autonomy" of the Catalan administration by taking direct control of its accounts, a point that became a subject of debate between the defendant and the prosecutor.

Another path that the prosecutor is seeking to use to prove the alleged misuse of public funds is through the Foreign Ministry, but on Tuesday she was unable to ask its leader, Raül Romeva, who only agreed to answer questions from his own defense counsel. Madrigal devoted many questions to actions abroad, travel expenses paid to international observers, visits by MEPs for the the referendum, and conferences by Carles Puigdemont —who Rull referred to as the “legitimate president”— and other advisers, but Rull did not want to go into detail because he had nothing to do with that ministry.

The violence of police faced with "peaceful" people

Possible violent actions also took center stage during the cross-examination, and Rull condemned any "verbal assaults", when Madrigal asked about the alleged siege at various hotels where Guardia Civil and Spanish police officers were housed in the days leading up to 1-O. The ex-Minister complained that some of them, as a response, were seen in the streets in plainclothes and holding truncheons; regarding 1-O, he emphasized the "disproportion" of police violence. "I would never have imagined that the police would employ the level of violence that they unleashed when faced with absolutely peaceful people," he indicated in relation to the day of the independence vote.

Rull echoed statements by José Manuel Maza, then Spain's Attorney General, who warned: "Do not force us to overstep the law." "I would never have thought that this threat would have resulted in them overstepping the law by using violence," Rull stressed. He also rejected the narrative of "human walls" of citizens in front of the polling stations to “attack” the Spanish police. On this matter, he denied any knowledge of the alleged injuries sustained by over 70 police officers brought up by the prosecutor.

Regarding the September 20, 2017 demonstration in front of the Ministry of Economy in protest of the search of several headquarters of the Catalan government by the Guardia Civil, he avoided going into detail about the protest and stuck to the statement that Joaquim Forn made last week. "A democracy that restricts the citizens' right to protest is doomed”, he noted. Madrigal replied: "But judges' decisions can be appealed." Rull continued to criticize the fact that the Prosecutor's indictment speaks of “disturbances" and restricts the right to protest, in his opinion. He warned the prosecutor that she would not feel “contented” by any of his answers on this topic.

Why did the 'Piolín' boat not dock at the Port of Palamos?

One of Rull's most detailed explanations was when the prosecutor asked him why the Generalitat did not allow the boat-hotel loaded with Spanish police officers, nicknamed 'Piolín' [Tweety Bird] after the comic book character painted on its side, at the port of Palamós. The ex-Minister argued that "cruise ships are the jewel in the crown" for the port of Palamós and that this would have been "irresponsible" and a "financial burden" for the port to allow a ship-hotel to dock. However, he insisted that he did not have the last word, and that it was those responsible for the port who decided, who only then told him that the objective was to house security forces, which ended up on September 20 in Barcelona, where the authority for the port is in the hands of the Spanish government.