Spain's former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, in power when Catalonia's executive tried to secede, will testify Wednesday in the trial of separatist leaders in a highly sensitive hearing just months before elections.
Rajoy governed Spain from 2011 until he was ousted in June last year by a no-confidence vote over a corruption trial that hit his conservative Popular Party (PP). He was replaced by socialist rival Pedro Sanchez.
The 63-year-old is due to appear at Madrid's Supreme Court after 4:00 pm local time (1500 GMT) as a witness in the trial of 12 separatist leaders and activists -- nine of them for rebellion -- over their role in the 2017 attempt to break Catalonia from Spain.
Before him, his former right-hand woman Soraya Saenz de Santamaria testified in court, accusing separatist leaders of persisting in organising an independence referendum on October 1, 2017 despite a court ban and "knowing that violence would take place".
Visibly angry, the former deputy prime minister said: "Everyone can have their own opinion and express it, but you can't violate the law and judicial decisions and generate violent incidents."
She admitted that images of police violence during the referendum were "not pleasant to see."
But she said that if voters had not been mobilised to form "human walls" to prevent ballot boxes from being seized -- as alleged by prosecutors -- "maybe some images wouldn't have happened."
Catalonia's former separatist president Artur Mas also gave evidence as a witness. Mas stepped down in January 2016 before the secession bid but was close to those who led the attempt.
He criticised the decision to send police to stop people from voting in the referendum.
"I said (at the time): 'do you really think that the state will be so unintelligent to do something that will harm it directly with regards to its image in the whole world?'," he told the court.
"I confess I was wrong because that was the option."
- 'Didn't do politics' -
Critics accuse Rajoy of having fuelled pro-independence passions in Catalonia, with support for separatism in the northeastern region leaping from 10 percent of votes in 2010 to 47.5 percent in 2017 -- much of it under his mandate.
Even before he came to power, Rajoy had campaigned as opposition leader against a new, agreed status for the region that gave it extra powers and defined it as a "nation" within the Spanish state.
The Constitutional Court eventually overruled that nationhood claim, fuelling pro-independence passions.
"His appearance is very important because he headed" the country before, during and after Catalonia's secession bid, said Paloma Roman, politics professor at Madrid's Complutense University.
"As a witness, he has to tell the truth."
It "won't leave anyone indifferent," she said as political debate becomes increasingly virulent ahead of snap general elections on April 28 and European, municipal and regional polls in May.
Rajoy's appearance "may be a key and dramatic moment of the trial," said Joan Botella, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
He "will try to reject any responsibility" but "will have to respond to the question: why did he never sit down to talk" to the separatists?
"Rajoy didn't do politics, he resorted to the law," said Fernando Vallespin, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
He said Rajoy was "always turning to the Constitutional Court to put a brake on the separatists' initiatives."
- No longer in politics -
Prosecutors are seeking seven to 25 years jail for the 12 Catalan separatist leaders and activists.
They are being tried for pushing the independence referendum and for a subsequent short-lived declaration of independence on October 27, 2017.
That prompted Rajoy's government to sack the Catalan executive, dissolve the regional parliament, impose direct rule on the semi-autonomous region and call snap local elections.
Several days later, Catalonia's then leader Carles Puigdemont fled Spain for Belgium along with several other colleagues. Other separatist leaders were put in pre-trial custody.
But in the regional elections in December 2017, separatist parties once again won a majority in parliament.
Months later in June, Rajoy left politics "for good" after being ousted.