Catalan presidential candidate Jordi Turull, center, is surrounded by journalists as he leaves the Supreme Court with his wife Blanca Bragulat during a break for lunch in Madrid, Friday, March 23, 2018. A Spanish Supreme Court judge has charged 13 Catalan separatist politicians, including fugitive president Carles Puigdemont, with rebellion for their attempt to declare independence from Spain. Judge Pablo Llarena issued the indictment on Friday, wrapping a four-month long investigation into the events last fall. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

MADRID - Twenty-five Catalan leaders will be tried for rebellion, embezzlement or disobeying the state, Spain's Supreme Court ruled on Friday, in a sharp escalation of legal action against separatists in the northeastern region.

One of the leaders facing up to 25 years in prison if convicted, Marta Rovira, earlier said she had already fled Spain, joining six others in exile.

The ruling raised the stakes in Madrid's efforts to contain separatists in Catalonia, where a banned referendum backed independence last year.

The case will be closely watched by separatist groups across Europe and beyond. Rights groups have already criticised the extent of Madrid's crackdown - though the European Union, wary of any splintering of its member states, has firmly supported the Spanish government's response.

Catalonia has been in political limbo since Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took over its regional government after it unilaterally declared independence following the October plebiscite.

Supreme court judge Pablo Llarena said on Friday thirteen leaders, including Rovira and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont who is already in exile in Brussels, will be tried for rebellion.

Another twelve will be tried for embezzlement or disobeying the state through their role in holding the referendum or declaring independence.

Puigdemont and fellow separatists have all denied any wrongdoing, saying the plebiscite gave them the authority to break away from Spain.

"A DIFFICULT ROAD"

The vote was boycotted by Catalans opposed to the region splitting from Spain. Public support for the independence of Catalonia, which has its own language, extensive devolved powers and an economy as large as Portugal's, fluctuates either side of 40 percent in polls.

Judge Llarena ordered jail for five of the leaders pending their trial as he considered there was enough evidence that they committed a crime. He did not set a date for the trial.

The five appeared before the court today to be notified they would face trial and were detained immediately.

Among them was Jordi Turull, a close ally to Puigdemont who was put forward on Thursday to become the next regional president, although he failed to obtain enough votes after a small far-left secessionist group broke ranks and abstained.

The court's decision means a second leadership vote for Turull which was due to take place on Saturday will not happen because his presence is compulsory.

Rovira, the head of the separatist Esquerra Republicana party, said before the judge's announcement on Friday she had fled to avoid prosecution.

"Exile will be a difficult road, but it is the only way I have to recover my political voice," Rovira said in a letter. "Long live a Catalan Republic for all!"

The court, in a written ruling, requested that 14 members of the previous Catalan regional administration deposit 2.1 million euros ($2.59 million) in a bank account to pay back the money used to hold the referendum and cover judicial costs.

Several separatist leaders, including former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, have been in custody since last year.