Testing time for Spain's democracy as coup trial gets under way

Spain's fledgling democracy is facing one of its toughest challenges as the formal court-martial of last February's coup plotters finally gets underway.

At stake is not only the fate of the 33 accused. Spain's democracy itself is on the line, as is the hope of an eventual peaceful adjustment between military and civilian society.

In addition to the mounting tension over the coup trial which opens Feb. 19, Spain's ruling Center Party (UCD) has continued to crumble apart with trickling defections to the left and right. This has eroded the party's parliamentary majority and fueled coup sympathizer's claims of ''power vacuums.''

The government's fears of a new terrorist offensive timed to the coup court-martials have unfortunately also proved to be well-founded. This week two civil guards have been killed by the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, constituting, in the words of the autonomous Basque government communique ''an unmasked provocation'' of the Army.

Although security measures have been reinforced around top military brass and strategic centers, fears of continued terrorist attacks add to the nervousness. To make matters worse, the more moderate political military wing of ETA announced Feb. 17 that a majority of its members had voted for the resumption of armed struggle, ending the almost year long cease-fire.

The extreme right has also been fueling the fires with deliberate tension strategies, launching what has been termed here ''intoxication'' campaigns of misinformation. The extremist press has glorified the accused plotters and attempted to implicate not only King Juan Carlos in the failed coup, but even some socialist members of Parliament.

Campaigns in favor of the accused are embarrassingly open in many military posts although the defense ministry has pleaded repeatedly for ''serenity.''

The coup trials beginning here will probably stretch out over six weeks. They will coincide with the first anniversary of the Feb. 23 aborted coup in which the entire Spanish Parliament and government were held hostage at machine-gun point for over 18 hours by a group of paramilitary civil guards who had stormed the building.

The star defendants are Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero of the civil guard who led the seige on Parliament and who had previously been condemned to seven months in jail for an earlier wild coup plot that never got a chance to hatch; Lt. Gen. Jaime Milans del Bosch of the Army who occupied the eastern coastal city of Valencia with tanks; and Gen. Alfonso Armada, also of the Army, who was presumed to be the new military head of government if the coup had succeeded and who was a close adviser to King Juan Carlos.

They are being tried for military rebellion, a lesser charge than treason, and face the longest sentences: 30 years in jail and loss of employment. Thirty other defendants including one civilian are also on trial for rebellion with sentences varying from 20 years down to 18 months imprisonment.

All eyes are turned to the court-martials that are taking place in a totally military scenario. Many Spaniards wonder if justice will truly be meted out in a heavy atmosphere in which practically all participants - the accused, the defenders, the judges, the accusors, in addition to the several different branches of security forces guarding the procedure - are all colleagues in uniform.

When the Socialist Worker's Party number two leader, Alfonso Guerra, stated that he feared the February trial could be converted into a farce, the defense ministry hotly accused him of ''intolerable interference'' in military justice.

The defense of the accused, whose actions were witnessed by millions on television in playback after playback, will be to insist that the King agreed to the plot and to put democracy on trial by justifying the coup attempt.

The military judges have the delicate task of meting out heavy enough sentences to satisfy public indignation, detering future coup attempts, and restoring strict military discipline, still shattered a year after the coup.

At the same time, the judges will not want to antagonize with overly harsh sentences many sections of the armed forces which may sympathize with the coup plotters desire to save the country from ''going to the dogs.''

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