More than half a million people have gathered in Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day (Diada) to renew calls for regional independence as Spain awaits the verdict in the landmark trial of 12 separatist leaders over the failed breakaway bid two years ago.
Despite the politically charged atmosphere, police in the Catalan capital said that around 600,000 people had taken part in the annual event – dramatically down on the 1 million who turned out for the previous two Diadas.
Although the occasion officially commemorates the fall of Barcelona at the end of the Spanish war of succession in 1714, in recent years pro-independence groups have used it as a show of strength and a means to focus attention on the cause.
When the independence movement first erupted in 2012, 1.5 million people took part in the Diada, rising to 1.8 million two years later.
This year’s decreased turnout – the lowest in seven years – comes amid growing splits, squabbling and uncertainty within the secessionist movement.
Speaking on the eve of the Diada, Catalonia’s pro-independence regional president, Quim Torra, had urged people to “take to the streets and squares to proclaim our full and non-negotiable commitment to democracy, to social, civil and political rights, and to the flag of freedom, always and everywhere”.
In the lead-up to the rally, the streets of Barcelona had filled with people waving striped red-and-yellow Catalan flags and wearing T-shirts bearing separatist slogans.
“If we, the people, don’t take action, all these years will have been for nothing,” Marc Casanova, a 37-year-old teacher, told Agence France-Presse.
He said that, once the verdicts had been handed down, Catalans should follow the example of the “yellow vest” demonstrators in France and block roads, ports and airports – “but without the violence or vandalism”.
Earlier this week the regional vice-president, Pere Aragonès, said the court’s decision could trigger “massive, peaceful civil demonstrations” and lead to the formation of a regional “government of national unity” to try to force the Spanish government to seek a negotiated, political solution.
The independence movement has lost momentum as different blocs argue over the best way forward.
Torra and Puigdemont favour a continuing confrontation with Madrid, while Junqueras and Aragonès’ Catalan Republican Left party are more inclined towards negotiations.
“I don’t believe in politicians,” Cristina Montero, who attended the march with her partner and teenage son, told Reuters.
“I believe in the sentiment of the people coming here.”
Police in Barcelona have arrested nine Catalan independence activists on suspicion of terrorism and confiscated material they allege could be used in bomb making.
According to the police, those detained are associated with the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), a network of radical groups that advocates direct action to secure Catalan independence from Spain.
The arrests, made in a variety of locations in the Barcelona area, were carried out by the Civil Guard under instruction from an audiencia nacional (national court) judge, who deals with serious offences such as terrorism, drug smuggling and organised crime.
The nine arrested people, who could face charges of rebellion and terrorism, are said to be members of the CDR’s so-called tactical response team. The team has previously blocked major roads and railway lines but its principal tactic to date has been passive resistance rather than outright confrontation.
Police said they believed the activists were planning to carry out sabotage and violent attacks on 1 October, the second anniversary of the illegal referendum on independence, to coincide with the sentencing of Catalan politicians for their role in the poll and the subsequent unilateral declaration of independence. The politicians are expected to be sentenced on or around 10 October.
The arrests were the result of an anti-terrorist investigation that was launched more than a year ago.
The arrest of nine pro-independence activists being accused of “terrorism” has sparked outrage among the parties in favor of a self-determination referendum.
The mainstream pro-independence political forces with MPs in Madrid congress, ERC and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) urged Spain’s home affairs ministry to give an explanation before the lower chamber.
“Firstly arrest, then investigate?”
For JxCat’s spokesperson, Laura Borràs, this is an “opaque and criminalizing operation against the independence movement.”
“They firstly arrest, and then investigate? We want an explanation,” she added on Twitter.
“In democracy it works the other way round”
“[We] live in a country where people are arrested in the early hours in order to look for evidence against them. I mention this because in democracy it works the other way round,” said ERC’s leader in Madrid, Gabriel Rufián
According to Rufián, some media outlets are trying to make the public think that “those with weapons are voters and not those who sell them to Saudi satraps.”
“Criminalization of protest”
Far-left CUP party and CDR group have asked citizens to join protests to condemn the arrests.
CUP former MP Eulàlia Reguant said that it is no coincidence that the operation comes just a few days before a potential guilty verdict to the jailed pro-independence leaders is out, which might prompt large-scale protests.
“They look to terrify people and make people stay at home due to the criminalization of protest.”
“Fundamental rights at stake”
CDR local groups already called rallies on Monday arguing that Catalan citizens’ “fundamental rights are at stake.”
Meanwhile, the Catalunya en Comú party, in favor of a referendum but not explicitly of independence, also rejected the operation.
Their MP in Madrid Jaume Asens said that Spain’s police are “banalizing terrorism.”
He added that these kind of moves create “tension and social alarm for no reason.”
“We are concerned because we know how these operations with big publicity and social alarm usually end up: they fizzle out.”
Asens reminded the cases of two other activists accused of terrorism in 2018 – one of them, Adrià Carrasco, went into exile, and the other one, Tamara Carrasco, was held in her town before the charges were dropped for both.
Nine Catalan separatist leaders have been cleared of violent rebellion over their roles in the failed bid for regional independence two years ago but found guilty of the lesser crimes of sedition and misuse of public funds.
The region’s former vice-president Oriol Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds by Spain’s supreme court, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was also banned from holding public office for 13 years.
The former Catalan foreign minister Raül Romeva was convicted of the same offence and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and handed a 12-year ban on holding office, as were the former regional government spokesman Jordi Turull and the former labour minister Dolors Bassa.
Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament, was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison, while the former Catalan interior minister Joaquim Forn and former territorial minister Josep Rull got 10 and a half years each.
Two influential pro-independence grassroots activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were found guilty of sedition and given nine-year sentences.
Three other independence leaders were found guilty of disobedience and handed fines and bans on holding office.
Monday’s verdict, delivered by seven judges at Spain’s supreme court, came at the end of a landmark, four-month trial that heard from 422 witnesses and investigated the events that triggered the country’s worst political crisis since it returned to democracy following the death of General Franco.
Reacting to the sentences, the deposed regional president Carles Puigdemont described them as “an outrage” in a tweet on Monday morning.
“It’s time to react as never before,” he wrote. “For the future of our children. For democracy, for Europe, for Catalonia.”
Puigdemont, who led the push for regional independence, was not among those on trial. He fled Spain to avoid arrest at the end of October 2017 and is living in self-imposed exile in Belgium.
Nine of the 12 defendants had stood accused of rebellion, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
The case centred on the referendum on 1 October 2017, which was held in defiance of the then government of the conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy, and of the country’s constitution, which is founded on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
Polling day met with a heavy-handed and violent response from some of the national and Guardia Civil police officers who had been deployed to the area before the vote.
Ballot boxes were forcibly seized, voters dragged out of polling stations and hit with batons, and rubber bullets fired.
Also scrutinised were the events of 20 September 2017, when police raided Catalan regional government offices and arrested 14 senior officials in an attempt to head off the vote.
The raids brought thousands of Catalans out to protest. Guardia Civil officers found themselves trapped inside the buildings they were searching and three of their vehicles were vandalised.
The state prosecutor, Javier Zaragoza, had argued such behaviour constituted “physical, compulsive and intimidatory violence”, adding: “The violent nature of an uprising does not mean there has to be either serious or armed violence.”
Zaragoza had characterised the push for secession as a “coup d’état” designed to “overturn, suspend the constitution completely or partially, and declare the independence of one part of the national territory”.
However, defence lawyers rejected such arguments, pointing out that under Spanish law, rebellion involves “revolting violently and publicly”.
The lesser offence of sedition, meanwhile, is defined as “rising up publicly and tumultuously to prevent, through force or beyond legal means, the application of the law”. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Junqueras’s lawyer, Andreu Van den Eynde, had dismissed the case as “procedural vaudeville” and said it was intended to put Catalan independence itself on trial.
He told the court that while there may have been “disobedience”, there had been no rebellion.
“Talking about a coup d’état is confusing disobedience with rebellion,” he said.
The offence of disobedience carries a fine and a ban from holding public office, but not a jail term.
Junqueras, who had described himself in court as “a political prisoner … on trial for my ideas”, had insisted that neither voting , nor defending “the republic” in parliament, could constitute an offence.
“When it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms, having the will to talk, to negotiate, to find agreement, should never be a crime,” he told the judges at the end of the trial phase in mid-June.
Rajoy reacted to the unilateral independence declaration by using the constitution to sack the secessionist Catalan government and assume control of the region.
Appearing as a witness in February, the former prime minister laid the blame for the referendum day violence squarely at the door of Puigdemont’s Catalan government.
“If they hadn’t called people to vote in an illegal referendum and hadn’t made decisions that broke the law, neither you nor I would have had to see the injuries that some people and some members of the security forces had,” he told the court.
The defendants have already said they will appeal to the European court of human rights if necessary.
The supreme court jailed nine of our colleagues for exercising their right to peaceful political expression. We will never back down
The Spanish supreme court’s decision to imprison nine democrats and civil society leaders for organising a referendum on self-determination in Catalonia marks a new phase in the struggle for independence. Catalans have been calling on the government of Pedro Sánchez for more than a year to intervene, and attempt to bring about a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Monday’s ruling is an escalation that will ignite anger right across the region.
Answering the calls of extreme rightwing elements in Spain, the court imposed crushing prison terms on nine members of the government that I had the privilege to lead. I know these people well. They are dedicated democrats, committed to the cause of peaceful democratic change to Spain’s fragile post-Franco constitution. They include the speaker of the Catalan parliament and the presidents of the two most important non-partisan civil society organisations, Omnium and the ANC. They are all pacifists and liberals.
Some members of the government, including myself, decided to go into exile to escape the persecution, and to be able to defend the rights of Catalans more effectively. If we had remained in Spain, as this judgment proves, we too would have been subjected to an unfair trial by a politicised judiciary, prevented from refuting the false accusations against us. Instead, we have been given sanctuary in other European countries, and protected against Spain’s attempts to extradite us from Belgium, Germany and Scotland. Applications for our extradition have been refused or abandoned because the allegations are recognised as purely political. Modern pluralistic democracies protect the right to political organisation and the right to peaceful political expression and association. Yet that is precisely what our nine colleagues have been imprisoned for. What Spain condemns, European democracy absolves.
The actions of the Spanish state, its government and its judiciary strike at the heart of our democratic values at the very time that Europe needs them most. This can no longer be regarded as an internal matter for Spain, or even the institutions of the EU. It is an international concern. Earlier this year, the case of the Catalan political prisoners was brought to the United Nations by an international legal team led by Ben Emmerson QC, a British international lawyer and former UN special rapporteur on human rights. In two carefully reasoned decisions, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention held that the pre-trial imprisonment of the nine politicians was a violation of international law and a clear breach of Spain’s legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But the working group went further than that. It held that the imposition of any sentences of imprisonment at the end of the trial would violate international law. It called on Spain to release the prisoners immediately, and to conduct an independent investigation to identify those public officials responsible for the arbitrary detentions and to hold them accountable. The rule of law required no less.
Instead of heeding that warning, the Spanish authorities set about disparaging the UN, accusing the working group of bias and challenging its decision. The supreme court proceeded to ignore the UN ruling and has now imposed sentences that are designed to crush the Catalan independence movement – to break the individuals who were before the court and to instil fear in the millions of people who support them. This is the reality of modern Spanish democracy.
The supreme court allowed Vox, a neo-Francoist political party, to take an active part in the legal proceedings and to question the defendants personally. The extreme right in Spain correctly perceives Catalan independence parties as a threat. The political message throughout this process has been clear. This is the old Spain reasserting itself. Never truly committed to the human rights values of the Council of Europe and the European Union, dark forces have begun to assert themselves once more, with the full acquiescence of the government and the judiciary.
The implications for democracy will be felt well outside Spain. In August, for instance, Turkey’s minister of home affairs sought to justify the persecution of elected Kurdish officials by citing the Spanish government’s actions against pro-independence politicians in Catalonia as a precedent. By turning a blind eye to the political repression in Catalonia, the EU has given succour to the Erdoğan regime that at this very moment is killing civilians in north-eastern Syria.
Two years have passed since the repression began, since the dissolution of a democratically elected parliament and the dismissal by decree of a government with a parliamentary majority. In all this time, there has not been a single political proposal put forward by the Spanish government as a constructive alternative to the call for full independence. After four elections in as many years, the Spanish government is incapable of adopting a coherent political position, and instead is backing itself into an increasingly desperate corner.
But despite the continuing persecution of the independence movement, the pro-independence parties in Catalonia gained an unprecedented level of support in the European parliament elections held in May this year. Over the course of two years of repression, with people in prison and exile, and citizens scared of the brute force of the state, the pro-independence movement has grown ever stronger at the ballot box. It is a movement that now goes far beyond its political leadership. It spans the whole of Catalan society, and is rooted in the liberal tradition of democratic radicalism.
Monday’s judgment is a condemnation not of the individual accused, but of more than 2 million people who made the referendum a reality. The decision to imprison the political leadership for giving effect to the democratic will of the Catalan people will inevitably backfire on Spain. There is now only one possible route that the Catalan nation can follow. If Catalonia is to survive and to protect its institutions and culture, it must now become an independent state in the form of a republic. We will never back down.
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Catalan pro-independence demonstrators clashed with riot police in the center of Barcelona on Wednesday in a third day of protests over Monday’s imprisonment of nine leaders of a failed secession bid.
Police charged and fired foam bullets as protesters set fire to bins and cars near the interior department of the regional government in Barcelona, a Reuters witness said.
At least four streets were blocked by burning containers.
Artur Mas, who oversaw first referendum in 2014, explains why he thinks another is needed to calm the crisis
The push for Catalan independence, which has plunged Spain into its worst crisis in decades and riven the region itself, has moved too far, too fast, according to the former Catalan president who began the drive for secession.
Speaking to the Observer at the end of a week of unrest triggered by the Spanish supreme court’s jailing of nine separatist leaders, Artur Mas condemned the violence of recent days but accused the court of playing politics and the Spanish state of a “savage” response to demands for independence.
He said the court’s decision to convict the defendants of sedition was a disaster, adding: “It was a political sentence passed by people who aren’t politicians. They’re judges and when judges try to act like politicians, it normally ends badly.”
While denouncing the violence that has disfigured the traditionally peaceful independence movement, Mas said he took his hat off to “the massive mobilisation by people who realise they need to oppose this sentence and its consequences”.
On Friday an estimated 525,000 people gathered in Barcelona to protest against the sentence and call for the release of jailed and exiled independence leaders. The city’s Sagrada Familia church was closed after protesters blocked its entrance and later in the evening there were violent clashes as separatists hurled rocks and fireworks at police, who responded with teargas and rubber bullets.
However, Mas, who governed Catalonia between 2010 and 2016 and set the region on its collision course with Madrid by staging a symbolic, non-binding independence referendum five years ago, acknowledged that mistakes had been made.
The current crisis began when Mas’s successor, Carles Puigdemont, announced a unilateral independence referendum in June 2017.
The poll, staged in defiance of the Spanish government, courts and constitution, was held on 1 October that year and followed three weeks later by a unilateral declaration of independence in the regional parliament.
“In my opinion, the independence movement has made three mistakes,” said Mas. “The first is that it was in too much of a hurry and set out timeframes that were too short; it was making excessive demands of itself. The second mistake was the lack of internal unity – too often, there’s been a lack of unity within the movement and that’s still partly the case now.”
The third mistake, he added, had been underestimating the strength of the Spanish state. “We thought that in the 21st century and as part of the EU, it would act in a more democratic and civilised way,” he said. “But we’ve seen that it still acts the way it used to a few decades ago. We need to learn from those three mistakes.”
Mas conceded that the independence movement needed to do more to win hearts and minds in Catalonia, where support for secession has never risen above 48.7%, and where pro-independence parties have never managed to take 50% of the vote in regional elections.
The snap Catalan regional election called by the Madrid government and held in December 2017 saw the three pro-independence parties retain their absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, winning 70 of its 135 seats. Between them, they took 47.7% of the vote. But the biggest single winner was the staunchly anti-independence Citizens party, which took 37 seats.
Although Mas admitted that there is still not “a decisive majority in favour of independence”, he said another referendum needed to be held to settle the matter and heal the fractures within Catalan society.
Polls suggest that the vast majority of Catalans are in favour an official referendum held with the Spanish government’s blessing.
“It’s hard to find a solution that doesn’t involve a referendum because people want to take the decision over the future of the country, whether they’re in favour of independence or against it,” said Mas.
“The results may not be wholly positive but the current reality isn’t exactly positive either.”
He suggested that voters could be asked two questions in the referendum: whether they wanted to renegotiate their relationship with the central government with a new statute of regional autonomy, or whether they favoured independence.
“In any case, I think there has to be a referendum and people have to be allowed to vote on independence.”
Mas, who was barred from holding public office for two years after being convicted of disobeying the Spanish constitutional court by holding the symbolic independence referendum in 2014, said he is stunned by what has happened in the past two years.
He would never have imagined the nine politicians would end up in prison for sedition, nor that Puigdemont would end up in exile after fleeing to Belgium to avoid arrest and is now fighting to avoid extradition.
“I knew there could be legal consequences – I suffered them myself – but I thought they would be punished for disobedience with fines and not with charges of sedition,” he said. “Whether or not you’re in favour of independence, the sentences trample all over basic rights.”
Mas’s ban on holding office has now ended. While he feels his political career is complete, he is not ruling out a return to office given the turbulent state of Catalonia. “We’re living in such exceptional circumstances that I can’t offer a decisive no,” he said.
“My intention is not to run. But the circumstances in the country are what they are and I’m keeping an eye on what’s happening – and what’s happening within my own party – and I’ll take a final decision when the time comes. But if I had to give an answer now, it would be no.”
Democratically, a vote would involve the whole of the nation, not just the region of concern for the separatists.