Madrid, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — A politically charged trial of a dozen Catalan separatist leaders began Tuesday in Spain's Supreme Court amid protests and the possibility of an early general election being called in the country.
The defendants are being tried on rebellion and other charges stemming from their roles in pushing ahead with a unilateral independence declaration in October 2017. The declaration was based on the results of a divisive secession referendum that ignored a constitutional ban.
The trial, arguably Spain's most important in four decades of democracy , started as the future of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government hinged on a last-minute change of position by Catalan pro-independence parties to back his 2019 budget.
Sanchez could be forced to call an early election if the Catalan separatists, whose support brought the Socialists to power last year, don't change their current position of voting against his spending plan Wednesday.
The separatists want Sanchez to agree to talks on self-determination for their region, but the government argues that Spain's constitution doesn't allow it.
Opening the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Spanish Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero told Catalan lawmakers that the government would "not give in to any blackmail by anybody."
"Under no circumstance will we agree to include the right to self-determination in Catalonia in any talking points," she said.
Meanwhile, Sanchez appeared to put more pressure on his opponents by tweeting that "the right-wing and the separatists will vote against a budget that helps social causes."
"They both want the same thing: a Catalonia that is divided and a Spain that is divided," he wrote.
In response, Catalan lawmakers said that despite the imminent vote Wednesday, there was still time for the government to "rectify."
Tensions between regional and central authorities peaked with the 2017 breakaway attempt but the conflict has been festering ever since. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia remain divided by the secession question.
In Barcelona, thousands marched to a central square on Tuesday, demanding independence and criticizing Spain's judiciary. Some carried signs with the slogan, "Self-determination is not a crime." Earlier, pro-independence activists briefly blocked highways and the entrance to the state prosecutor's office before they were cleared by the regional police without incident.
In Madrid, right-wing protesters carrying national flags shouted as lawyers and three defendants who were free on bail entered the 18th-century convent that houses Spain's Supreme Court.
Former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, the regional parliament's former Speaker Carme Forcadell and the other 10 defendants weren't expected to testify Tuesday. They sat on four benches in the middle of the courtroom.
The defendants sat facing a seven-judge panel headed by Supreme Court magistrate Manuel Marchena, who presided. They held papers, smiled to each other at times and waved at relatives in the courtroom.
Junqueras' lawyer, Andreu Van den Eynde, was the first to speak, arguing that the cause goes "against political dissidence."
"We are before an exceptional trial," he told the judges, adding that "self-determination is the formula to avoid conflicts in the world."
Catalan President Quim Torra, a fervent separatist who has had to apologize for anti-Spanish comments, followed the proceedings from the back of the courtroom, where 100 seats were reserved for defendants' relatives, journalists and members of the public who lined up for hours to get one of the limited spots.
Torra later called the trial a "farce" and said any guilty verdicts would be appealed to European courts.
"No court can put Catalan democracy on trial," Torra said. "This case will end up in European and international courts, and we will win it."
Among those not on trial is Carles Puigdemont, Torra's predecessor who fled Spain. He called for the 12 separatists to be absolved for their alleged crimes and called the trial "a stress test for the Spanish democracy."
Addressing reporters at a news conference in Berlin, the former Catalan leader added: "I trust, however, that the Spanish state will take advantage of this chance to issue the correct sentence, which is absolution."
Puigdemont successfully avoided extradition to Spain when a German court refused to send him back on charges of rebellion last year. Since then, he has campaigned in Europe for the Catalans to be able to settle their links to Spain in a vote.
Those who stayed behind and showed up in court are the ones standing trial. Junqueras, Puigdemont's No. 2 at the time, faces up to 25 in prison if found guilty of rebellion, while others charged with sedition or misuse of public funds could get shorter sentences if convicted.
The proceedings were broadcast live on television in a display of transparency that aims to fight the separatists' attack on the court's credibility. Authorities in Spain have dismissed the notion that the trial is political and say it follows the European Union's highest standards.
Proceedings were likely to last for at least three months. The verdicts, and any sentences, will be delivered months later.
Spain, Feb 11 (AP/UNB) — Tens of thousands of people joined a right-wing rally in Spain's capital Sunday to demand that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez step down for his handling of the Catalonia region's secession crisis.
Many in the crowd assembled in Madrid's Plaza de Colon waved the national flag and chanted slogans in support of Spain's security forces along with calling for the Socialist prime minister's resignation.
The conservative opposition Popular Party and the center-right Citizens party organized the rally, which the upstart far-right Vox party and other far-right parties backed.
"The time of Sanchez's government is over," Popular Party president Pablo Casado said. He asked voters to punish Sanchez's Socialists in the European, local and regional elections in May.
The political tensions come as a highly sensitive trial at Spain's Supreme Court starts Tuesday for 12 Catalan separatists who face charges, including rebellion, for their roles in a failed secession attempt in 2017.
Sanchez inherited the Catalan conflict from former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the then-leader of the Popular Party. Rajoy proved incapable of stopping support for secession from swelling in Catalonia to roughly half of the northeastern region's voters.
Speaking at a Socialist party event in northern Spain, Sanchez reminded his political opponents that when he was an opposition leader, he stood by Rajoy on the situation in Catalonia even after separatist regional officials staged an Oct. 2017 independence referendum in defiance of Spanish courts..
"And what I am doing now as prime minister, always respecting the constitution, is to solve a national crisis to which the Popular Party has contributed," Sanchez said.
"The unity of Spain means uniting Spaniards and not confronting them as the right wing is doing in Plaza de Colon today," he said.
Sanchez came to power in June promising to thaw tensions between central authorities in Madrid and the Catalan leaders in Barcelona. He met twice with Catalan chief Quim Torra. Members of the central and regional governments had several more encounters.
Sanchez had said he would be willing to help Catalan lawmakers agree to a new Charter Law, which determines the amount of self-rule the region enjoys. But Sanchez's government broke off negotiations on Friday, when Vice President Carmen Calvo said the separatists wouldn't budge from their demand for an independence referendum.
Sanchez is trying to cobble together support to pass a national budget. His minority government will need votes from the Catalan separatists and other parties to pass it.
Even though Sanchez has said he wants to see out the legislative term through 2020, a failure to win a budget vote will crank up the pressure on him to call for an early election.
Orje, Feb 10 (AP/UNB) — With fresh snow crunching under their boots and a handful of papers to be checked and stamped, truck drivers from Latvia, Sweden and Poland make their way across Norway's Orje customs station to a small office where their goods will be cleared out of the European Union and into Norway.
While many border posts in Europe have vanished,, Norway's hard border with the European Union is clearly visible, with cameras, license-plate recognition systems and barriers directing traffic to customs officers.
Norway's membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) grants it access to the EU's vast common market and most goods are exempt from paying duties. Still, everything entering the country must be declared and cleared through customs.
Technological solutions being tested in Norway to digitalize customs procedures for cargo have been seized on by some in Britain as a way to overcome border-related problems that threaten to scuttle a divorce deal with the EU. But the realities of this northern border also show the difficulties that persist.
A divorce deal between Britain and the EU has stumbled over how to guarantee an open border between the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc on March 29.
The Irish border area was a flashpoint during decades of conflict in Northern Ireland that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible Irish border now underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.
The EU's proposed solution is for Britain to remain in a customs union with the bloc, eliminating the need for checks until another solution is found. But pro-Brexit British politicians say that would stop the U.K. from forging new trade deals around the world.
Technology may or may not be the answer, depending on who you talk to.
"Everyone agrees that we have to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and ... technology will play a big part in doing so," said Northern Ireland Minister John Penrose.
But EU deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand said on Twitter: "Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years."
The Customs office at Orje, on the road connecting the capitals of Oslo and Stockholm, has been testing a new digital clearance system to speed goods through customs by enabling exporters to submit information online up to two hours before a truck reaches the border.
At her desk in Orje, Chief Customs officer Nina Bullock was handling traditional paper border clearance forms when her computer informed her of an incoming truck that used the Express Clearance system.
"We know the truck number, we know the driver, we know what kinds of goods, we know everything," she told The Associated Press. "It will pass by the two cameras and go on. It's doesn't need to come into the office."
That allows Customs officers to conduct risk assessments before the vehicle even reaches the border.
So far, only 10 Swedish companies are in the pilot project, representing just a handful of the 400-450 trucks that cross at this border post each day. But if it's successful, the plan will be expanded.
In the six months since the trial began, Customs section chief Hakon Krogh says some problems have brought the system to a standstill, from snow blocking the camera, to Wi-Fi issues preventing the border barrier from lifting, to truck drivers who misunderstand which customs lane to use.
"It's a pilot program, so it takes time to make things work smoothly before it can be expanded," said Krogh, who still felt the program could have a long-term benefit.
The program also limits flexibility for exporters. If a driver calls in sick and is replaced by another, or extra cargo is added to a shipment, then all the paperwork must be resubmitted online.
Yet a greater barrier to digitalizing the border is the complexity of international trade.
The Svinesund customs office, 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Orje, is Norway's major road border, with 1,300 trucks each day carrying goods into the country from all over Europe. Customs section chief Kristen Hoiberget has been following the Orje pilot program with interest but warns of systematic challenges to its expansion.
"It's very easy to deal with a digital system when the goods are uniform," said Hoiberget. "If you have one kind of goods in a lorry, it's less complicated. But if you have a lorry that picks up goods at ten different places abroad, the complexity arises rapidly."
He said most of the export information needed is available digitally but Customs, clearance houses and exporters all use different computer systems.
"There are a lot of prerequisites to a digital border," he said. "A frictionless border would need development and lots of legislation."
Back in Orje, vehicles entering Norway are randomly checked, with officers mainly looking for alcohol and cigarettes, which are cheaper in Sweden. Border changes are coming, but certainly not in the tight two-month timeframe that any Brexit border changes would need.
"If you look 15 years ahead, I guess this office won't be here. I won't be sitting here stamping papers," said Bullock. "But customs officers will still be on duty, to prevent goods coming into Norway that are not supposed to."
As an AP journalist waited in the snow to watch a truck at Orje use the Express Clearance lane, a truck driver made his way across a large parking lot to the customs office.
"You must be doing a Brexit story," he joked. "They'll be in the same boat soon."
Moscow, , Feb 7 (AP/UNB) — A Taliban official said Wednesday that the United States has promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, but the U.S. military said it has received no orders to begin packing up.
Taliban official Abdul Salam Hanafi, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow between prominent Afghan figures and Taliban representatives, said officials promised the pullout will begin this month.
"The Americans told us that from the beginning of February to the end of April, half of the troops from Afghanistan will be withdrawn," Hanafi said.
However, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning said American defense officials had not received orders to start withdrawing.
"Peace talks with the Taliban continue, but (the Defense Department) has not received a directive to change the force structure in Afghanistan," Manning said.
Hanafi said both the U.S. and the Taliban would create technical committees that "will work on a timetable for the withdrawal of remaining troops."
Pentagon officials say they have no orders to withdraw troops. But in anticipation of such an order in the future, given the Trump administration's achievement of what it calls a "framework" for potential peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, military planners have been considering plans for how a pullout might be conducted.
The two-day talks in the Russian capital that wrapped up Wednesday sidelined the government of Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani.
Afghanistan's former president, Hamid Karzai, was involved in the meeting and hailed the discussions, saying the participants shared a desire for peace and stability and opposition to foreign intervention.
"We are happy with the outcome of the meeting," Karzai said.
Speaking after the Moscow meeting, the head of the Taliban delegation, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said talks on the U.S. withdrawal were continuing.
"We are in negotiations with the American side and we are trying that the American forces should go out as soon as possible," Stanikzai said. "The timeline is not fixed so far, it is not agreed upon, but we are negotiating this."
Efforts to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan's longest war have accelerated since the September appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as Washington's peace envoy. He has held several meetings with the Taliban.
Talks have mostly focused on a U.S. troop withdrawal and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan would not again be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack other countries, according to both Khalilzad and Taliban officials.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the U.S. has been holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban.
"As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism," he said.
London, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — British Prime Minister Theresa May told business leaders in Northern Ireland on Tuesday that she is seeking changes to the U.K.'s withdrawal agreement with the European Union, but not the total removal of the Irish border provision that is the most contentious part of the deal.
Seeking to ease fears about the return of customs posts and vehicle checks, May said during a visit to Belfast that the British government is committed to preventing the construction of a physical border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the European Union.
The prime minister said she was in Belfast "to affirm my commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland — which is unshakable."
She also emphasized the government's support for the Good Friday agreement, the 1998 treaty that largely ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as "the Troubles."
May's words of reassurance did little to solve her Brexit border dilemma.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, but no withdrawal agreement has been approved because Britain's Parliament voted down May's plan last month, in part because of concerns about the border plan, known as the backstop. It is a safeguard mechanism that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
The border area was a flashpoint during the decades of conflict that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible border today underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.
But many pro-Brexit British lawmakers fear the backstop will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU, and say they won't vote for the EU divorce deal unless it is removed.
EU leaders, however, insist the withdrawal agreement the bloc struck with May's government late last year can't be reopened.
"The withdrawal agreement is the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal by the U.K," Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Tuesday. "We want the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible, so that the backstop will never be needed."
Still, May plans to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday seeking changes to the backstop, and will return to Parliament next week with — she hopes — a modified plan.
May said Tuesday she is seeking changes to the backstop, rather than its removal from the agreement, as some pro-Brexit British lawmakers want.
"I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future," she said.
"What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop."