A Barcelona court has barred the former premier of Catalonia, Artur Mas, from elected office for two years for staging a referendum on independence in 2014.
The Catalan high court of justice ruled that Mr Mas, who was regional premier until January 2016, had been the “direct and material mastermind” of the referendum, the staging of which defied a ruling by Spain’s top court. He was also fined €36,500.
Two fellow defendants, Joana Ortega and Irene Rigau, who were members of Mr Mas’s cabinet, were also found guilty of disobedience and barred from public office for 21 and 18 months, respectively. They also received fines.
The sanctions were softer than those requested by the state attorney – who wanted a 10-year ban for Mr Mas – and all three defendants were absolved of the charge of abusing their position.
However, with tensions running particularly high at the moment between Madrid and Barcelona over the Catalan drive for independence, the ruling has drawn an angry response.
“It is inconceivable that in a democracy you can be barred from public positions only because you have listened to the people,” Mr Mas said.
In the 2014 vote, which was not intended as a legally binding referendum, just over 80 per cent of participants voted for independence for the northeastern region. However, less than 40 percent of Catalans turned out because of the referendum’s illegal status.
“We would do everything exactly the same way again,” Mr Mas said, adding that the three defendants will appeal the decision before Spanish and European courts. “We don’t regret a thing. We are democrats and we are proud of having given the people a voice.”
As Catalan premier, Mr Mas was the political face of the independence campaign and separatists portrayed his trial as an attempt by the Spanish state to manipulate the judiciary.
His successor as Catalan premier, Carles Puigdemont, has been planning another referendum for later this year. Backed by a broad secessionist front, he says that if the independence vote wins, Catalonia will start the process of breaking away from Spain. The Spanish government has vowed to take whatever measures it deems necessary to stop that vote. Polls suggest Catalans are evenly split over independence.
Reacting to the sentence, Mr Puigdemont suggested he plans to push ahead with this year’s referendum. “We will continue with our commitment, a commitment that is reinforced by every obstacle that it has to face,” he said.
However, others welcomed the court’s decision. “Today’s sentence shows that the rule of law works and ends up putting everyone in their place,” said Xavier García Albiol, a Spanish politician and member of the People’s Party. “It shows that the rule of law and democracy work.”
In recent days, Convergència, the nationalist party of Puigdemont and Mas, has come under scrutiny. Fèlix Millet, the former director of Barcelona’s Palau music auditorium who is on trial for embezzlement, told a court bribes were paid to the party in exchange for public works contracts. Convergència recently rebranded itself as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat).