SANT JOAN DE VILATORRADA, Spain — Depending on whom you ask, Oriol Junqueras is either a rebel Catalan leader who sought Spain’s implosion or an elected politician who has unjustifiably spent the past year in prison, awaiting trial for organizing an independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish government and courts.
Whichever answer prevails is not just central to the fate of Mr. Junqueras and 17 other indicted former leaders of Catalonia. It will most likely also influence the broader political conflict over the status of the region, which has its own culture and language, and a history at times defined by a struggle against the central power in Madrid.
“What is important is to know what you want,” Mr. Junqueras, who was the deputy leader of Catalonia, said during a recent visit in prison. “With whom you want to live and with whom you don’t — not exactly when the marriage will take place.”
Mr. Junqueras knows what he wants. But this month, Spain’s attorney general formally charged him and other secessionist leaders with rebellion and misuse of public funds, among other crimes, for their role in the referendum last year that had been declared unconstitutional, and in the declaration of independence that followed.
Mr. Junqueras faces the toughest charges of the separatists, and he could spend up to 25 years in prison if he is found guilty.
As the leader of Esquerra Republicana, one of Catalonia’s main political parties, he remains a central figure in the region’s future, particularly after the recent splintering of the separatist coalition over how to revive independence plans three years after winning a majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament.
He and other Catalan separatist leaders were jailed shortly after being ousted by the Spanish government in October 2017. Since then, while they have remained behind bars, the secessionist conflict has festered and continued to split Catalan society, while also threatening Spain’s political stability.
In interviews last month inside the Lledoners prison, northwest of Barcelona, Mr. Junqueras and Raül Romeva, who had been in charge of foreign affairs in the former Catalan government, denied any wrongdoing and said they remained committed to turning Catalonia into an independent republic.
But they struggled to offer a clear path toward secession after last year’s failed declaration of independence.
“You can argue that we underestimated some of the difficulties of what we wanted to do last year, but nobody should now underestimate the strength of our movement, whether we are kept in prison or not,” Mr. Junqueras said. “I’m sure we will get stronger.”
Complicating matters, new leaders took office both in Catalonia and in the national government of Madrid this year. In May, Catalan lawmakers narrowly elected as president Quim Torra, a separatist who was not under indictment by the Spanish authorities.
Then in June, Pedro Sánchez became Spain’s prime minister, having won a parliamentary majority with the support of nationalist lawmakers from Catalonia and the Basque region. He succeeded Mariano Rajoy, who had suspended Catalonia’s autonomy and imposed direct rule from Madrid, using his emergency constitutional powers.
In return for their support, Mr. Sánchez promised to restore political dialogue with Mr. Torra’s administration, and he soon agreed to the transfer of Mr. Junqueras and other Catalan politicians who were jailed in Madrid to prisons in Catalonia, closer to their relatives and lawyers.
But in the past few months, Mr. Sánchez and Mr. Torra have tested the limits of their fragile parliamentary alliance without making any significant progress on the Catalonia question. Mr. Torra recently responded to the rebellion charges brought against Mr. Junqueras and others by warning that Catalan lawmakers would retaliate by blocking Mr. Sánchez’s next national budget in Parliament.
“The government has missed a golden opportunity to remove the Catalan conflict from the courts and move it back into the political arena, which is where it belongs,” Mr. Torra said.
The Catalan leaders’ trial will also be a significant test for Spain’s judiciary, which is under pressure from hard-liners to deliver tough prison sentences that could serve as precedent for any other groups who might seek to break from Spain in the future. Catalan separatists, on the other hand, are warning that it could be a show trial by deeply politicized Spanish judges.
“For the people who didn’t believe the Spanish state had a structural problem, our long prison stay should already have shown them the failure of this state,” said Mr. Romeva, who shared a telephone with Mr. Junqueras as they spoke through the glass pane of a prison visitation booth.
The separatists’ trial, expected to start in early 2019, is also taking place in exceptional circumstances because the main protagonist of last year’s political turmoil — Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia — has successfully resisted Spanish attempts to have him extradited to Madrid. He fled to Brussels in October 2017, alongside a handful of other members of his former cabinet, after the central government in Madrid ousted him and briefly placed Catalonia under direct rule.
Since then, Mr. Junqueras and Mr. Puigdemont have grown apart, not only because of their different personal circumstances, but also over diverging views on how to confront Madrid. Asked what he thought about Mr. Puigdemont’s decision to evade prosecution and instead rebuild a hard-line separatist party from Brussels, Mr. Junqueras said, “I’m not interested in evaluating the actions of other leaders.”
“My own goal has always been to stay close to my people,” he added, “to show them that I am willing to make every effort and sacrifice possible to defend what I believe in.”
On a road leading to the Lledoners prison, separatists have painted yellow signs calling for “Freedom” and “Independence.” They have also held vigils outside the penitentiary to call for the release of Mr. Junqueras and his former colleagues.
But some Spanish publications have portrayed Mr. Junqueras as enjoying privileged detention conditions, even likening them to those that had been enjoyed by Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord who was able to maintain a privileged lifestyle — as well as to run his cocaine business — while in a resortlike prison.
Mr. Junqueras says that the only real privilege he has received since being transferred is being allowed to rekindle his academic calling, as a former university professor.
He has been permitted to occasionally teach astronomy, history, mathematics and other subjects to fellow inmates.
“I care about politics,” he said. “But I also like people to know about our discovery of UY Scuti, the biggest star in our universe.”