Catalan separatists protest on anniversary of banned independence referendum

Reuters , Tuesday 1 Oct 2019

Supporters of Catalonia's independence take part in a protest to mark the second anniversary of the October 1st illegal referendum of independence in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2019. (Reuters)

Protesters gathered in Girona on Tuesday to mark the second anniversary of a banned Catalan independence vote, some hurling eggs at police and toppling garbage bins, amid a hardening political atmosphere around Spain's most polarising issue.

Tensions between separatists in the region and Madrid have run high in recent days after Spain's high court sent seven Catalan separatist activists to jail, which was followed by the regional parliament adopting a resolution backing civil disobedience.

The protests will provide a measure of the strength of Catalan separatism, which has posed a major challenge for Spain for years and triggered its biggest political crisis in decades in 2017 when the region briefly declared independence.

The separatist movement has so far been peaceful, but this has been put in question by the arrest last week of the seven activists, alleged to be linked with the grassroots CDR protest movement and accused of preparing violent actions.

The Oct. 1 anniversary protests come before the verdict, expected in the next two weeks, of separatist leaders arrested in 2017 over their role in the region's failed independence bid.

The botched declaration of independence, which was followed by Madrid sidelining regional authorities and ruling Catalonia directly for months, still dominates national politics.

Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Tuesday that Madrid would not hesitate to apply direct rule to Catalonia again if the regional government broke any laws.

"I hope it doesn't arrive to that point," Sanchez said in an interview with broadcaster Cadena Ser.

Separatist leaders have so far refused to condemn the seven activists arrested last week over what prosecutors say were plans for violent actions, saying instead that authorities in Madrid were trying to paint separatists as a violent movement, a label they reject.


Non-violent resistance


"There is only one way (to achieve independence) ... that is of civic, non-violent resistance," the former head of the Catalan region, Carles Puigdemont, told Catalan public radio on Tuesday.

But national political leaders in Madrid insist Catalan separatist politicians must condemn those who were arrested.

"We urge the Catalan independence movement not to play with fire, not to make the worst possible mistake, which is to look the other way if there are signs of violence, as we have unfortunately seen in recent weeks," Sanchez said.

Police had cordoned off the train station and other key buildings in Girona, a small town at the heart of the independence movement.

The Girona protest, attended by around 150 people, was organised by the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), among other entities. They have staged periodic protests since separatist leaders were arrested after the October 2017 referendum and short-lived declaration of independence.

Separatists are at a crossroads, and are divided over what course to take - a hard line that could lead to another banned independence referendum or more dialogue with Madrid.


We will win


"We were born to defend a referendum. We grew to defend a republic. We will be who will make the enemy tremble. And we will win. Have no doubts," the CDRs said on a manifesto on the referendum anniversary posted on Twitter.

Police did not make any arrests in Girona but asked one person for its identification after that person threw paint to some officers, a Catalan police spokesperson said, adding that security had been strengthened around the town's train station and other official buildings.

More events are planned on Tuesday, including a rally in the evening in Barcelona, where police also beefed up their presence in the city's main train station.

Speaking on the eve of the anniversary, Catalonia's regional president Quim Torra described Oct. 1 as the beginning of "the irrepressible journey towards a Catalan republic."

Asked about Sanchez's comments on the possibility of fresh direct rule from Madrid in Catalonia, Torra's predecessor Puigdemont, who lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium, said there was no reason for such a move and attributed the comments to political posturing ahead of Nov.10 parliamentary election.

An annual pro-independence rally in Barcelona gathered fewer people that usual last month. Organisers said this had been the "hardest" secessionist protest to put together since they started in 2012, because of divisions among the separatist parties and the lack of a clear road map for independence.

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