Spain’s former leader told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that Catalan separatist leaders should bear full responsibility for the chaos and clashes during their 2017 independence referendum, insisting that he played no part in directing the national police to use force to block people from voting.
Mariano Rajoy, the former prime minister, was the most prominent among the many witnesses called to testify during the landmark trial of 12 former leaders of the Catalonia region of Spain. They are facing prison sentences of up to 25 years if convicted on charges of staging a rebellion during the botched attempt to secede unilaterally from the rest of Spain in October 2017.
In an attempt to turn the tables on Spain’s central government, a defense lawyer for the separatists showed Mr. Rajoy television footage of the chaotic and unconstitutional referendum in October 2017, in which Spanish police officers were filmed hitting voters with their truncheons.
“I have sadly seen many images of this kind during my life,” Mr. Rajoy told the court. “What I would like to say is that the responsibility of political leaders is to avoid events like those that we have seen. If they acted by respecting the law, we would not have seen these images, nor other similar ones.”
“I greatly regret these images,” he added.
“If people had not been convened to an illegal referendum, nobody would have seen the injuries that some people suffered and members of the security forces,” Mr. Rajoy said.
He also insisted that the Catalan separatist leaders “were perfectly aware from day one” that his government would never allow a referendum on independence, nor accept offers for third-party mediation.
“There was never a negotiator,” Mr. Rajoy said, when asked about an attempt by the leader of the Basque region to help break the deadlock. “Spain is what all Spaniards want it to be — and not just some Spaniards.”
The result of the referendum — which passed overwhelmingly but with many abstentions — was immediately declared null and void by Spain’s judiciary. Nevertheless, the separatist majority in the Catalan regional Parliament declared independence weeks later.
That prompted Mr. Rajoy to impose direct rule from Madrid over the restive region and oust its separatist government, led by Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Brussels to avoid prosecution in Spain.
Mr. Rajoy said his government imposed direct rule over Catalonia following a long debate.
“I believe we were very prudent and made an effort to get the support of everybody, including giving a chance to change course to those whom we believed had made the wrong decision,” he said.
The trial, which began about two weeks ago, is expected to last some three months. That means that it will not be over by the time Spaniards return to the polls on April 28, when Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called a snap general election.
Mr. Sánchez, who leads a minority Socialist government, called the election after losing the support of his erstwhile Catalan allies in Parliament and suffering a major defeat when lawmakers rejected his national budget.
Catalonia is expected to feature heavily in the election campaign because the main opposition parties promise to snuff out the ongoing secessionism challenge from the region if elected. Pablo Casado, who replaced Mr. Rajoy as leader of the conservative Popular Party, recently accused Mr. Sánchez of treason for holding unsuccessful talks with the current separatist leader of Catalonia, Quim Torra.
Instead, the Popular Party and the anti-secessionist party Ciudadanos want to restore direct rule over Catalonia unless Mr. Torra fully abandons his independence ambitions. Going a step further, Vox, a far-right party, wants to put Spain back under tight central control and abolish the system of regional governments that was created as part of Spain’s return to democracy after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.
Vox is hoping to gain its first seats in the national Parliament in April, following a breakthrough in a regional election in Andalusia in December. Lawyers for Vox are also seeking much longer prison sentences for the 12 defendants in the Supreme Court trial than those sought by state prosecutors.