Catalan leader Artur Mas’s court appearance heightens tensions

Hundreds on streets in Barcelona waving region’s flag and chanting ‘independence’

Catalan president Artur Mas thanks followers as he leaves the Superior Court of Catalonia in Barcelona on Thursday. Photograph: Andreu Dalmau/EPA

Catalan president Artur Mas thanks followers as he leaves the Superior Court of Catalonia in Barcelona on Thursday. Photograph: Andreu Dalmau/EPA

 

An appearance in court by the nationalist premier of Catalonia, Artur Mas, brought hundreds of pro-independence politicians into the streets of Barcelona on Thursday in a highly charged scene which has further heightened tensions between the northeastern region and Madrid.

Mr Mas had been summoned to the Catalan high court to be questioned over his role in a November 2014 illegal referendum on independence from Spain. He is accused of defying a judicial ruling that outlawed the vote, overstepping his powers, obstructing the justice system and misusing public funds for the referendum.

The Catalan premier has said his summons shows the Spanish government is meddling in the judiciary.

Mr Mas walked to the doors of the court accompanied by members of his regional government, about 400 mayors who support independence and a group of pro-independence deputies from the Catalan parliament. Hundreds lined the street, waving the region’s flag and chanting “independence” as he entered.

Legality of referendum

“I feel responsible for defending social peace, ideological freedom and the right to vote – all fundamental rights in the constitution,” he said afterwards in the Catalan government’s headquarters. “That is why I have asked the court if behaving like a democrat is the equivalent of acting like a criminal.”

He reiterated his charge the summons was politically motivated, saying “some will want to pursue this case to the end, because the [Spanish] state is not neutral and the state apparatus is acting with bias, I know that to be true.” Mr Mas could be fined, barred from office or face a year in jail.

Adding to the day’s drama was the fact that Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the death of Lluís Companys, a Catalan premier who was killed on the orders of dictator Francisco Franco and remains a hero for nationalists. Before going to court, Mr Mas left flowers at the deceased politician’s Barcelona grave.

Mr Mas’s court summons follows those of two other members of his regional government this week, which saw similar scenes and drew accusations from the government that Catalan nationalists are intimidating the judiciary.

“Threatening the courts with demonstrations is absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate in a democratic country . . .” prime minister Mariano Rajoy said on Thursday in Brussels.

Mr Mas’s future is uncertain. Last month he led a pro-independence coalition to victory in a regional election treated as a plebiscite on secession from Spain. However, to clinch a majority, the coalition needs the support of the radical leftist Popular Union Candidacy (CUP), which wants Mr Mas to step aside for a new regional premier.