Protesters marched in Barcelona last month demanding the release of Oriol Junqueras who faces charges of rebellion along with eight other Catalan separatist leaders. (Photo: AFP)
Spain's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered 18 former Catalan leaders to stand trial over their role in last year's declaration of independence.
The court said nine jailed former leaders including Catalonia's ex-vice president Oriol Junqueras should be tried for rebellion, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
But the region's former president Carles Puigdemont -- who played a key role in the separatist drive and is in self-imposed exile in Belgium -- is not part of those sent to trial because Spain does not allow trials in absentia.
Puigdemont is also accused of rebellion.
Catalonia's parliament declared independence on October 27 last year following a banned secession referendum that was marred by violence as national police sent in from Madrid beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets.
The move triggered Spain's worst political crisis since the country returned to democracy following the death of long-time dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Apart from Junqueras, the court ordered five other members of the Catalan government to stand trial for rebellion, along with the ex-president of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell.
The leaders of two powerful grassroots separatist groups, Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural, were also ordered to stand trial for rebellion. They have been in jail since October 2017.
Some of the 18 accused also face charges of embezzlement or disobedience.
The trial is expected to start in early 2019.
Junqueras and the other former Catalan cabinet members were detained in November 2017 pending trial after organising the illegal referendum and declaring independence from Spain.
The central government responded to the unilateral declaration of independence by sacking the Catalan government, taking control of the wealthy northeastern region and calling a snap regional election.
Catalan separatist parties once again won a slim majority in the Catalan regional parliament in the December 2017 polls but they have become divided over what strategy to pursue to achieve independence.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's ruling Socialists have taken a more conciliatory approach than the conservative government they replaced earlier this year.
Sanchez's cabinet has offered a vote on increased self-government for Catalonia but categorically ruled out a referendum on self-determination or independence.
Several of his ministers have said they would prefer if the former Catalan leaders were not in pre-trial detention even as they stress only the courts can free them.
Sanchez's minority government depends on the support of Catalan separatist parties to pass legislation.
Polls show Catalans are evenly split on the question of independence but the overwhelming majority back a legally binding vote to settle the issue.
Catalonia's separatist drive has deeply divided people in the wealthy northeastern region and caused resentment in the rest of Spain.