Catalans take to streets on anniversary of divisive vote

Spanish region’s president Quim Torra criticised for praising separatist ‘pressure’

A student draped in the Spanish national flag stands between Catalan pro-independence students during a student demonstration “1-O, No Oblivion, neither Pardon” on the first anniversary of the Catalan independence referendum, in Barcelona. Photograph: Quique Garcia

A student draped in the Spanish national flag stands between Catalan pro-independence students during a student demonstration “1-O, No Oblivion, neither Pardon” on the first anniversary of the Catalan independence referendum, in Barcelona. Photograph: Quique Garcia

 

Pro-independence Catalans marked the first anniversary on Monday of the controversial referendum that unleashed Spain’s deepest political crisis of recent decades, with many taking to the streets of towns and cities across the region while others blocked roads and rail lines.

On October 1st last year, some two million Catalans turned out to vote on whether to separate from Spain, defying the constitutional court which had deemed the referendum illegal. Police violence against voters marred the day and deepened the rift between Madrid and the northeastern region.

A series of events were organised across Catalonia to mark the anniversary. Catalan president Quim Torra convened his government in Sant Julià de Ramis, chosen because it was where his now exiled predecessor, Carles Puigdemont, was unable to vote last year due to police action.

In a statement, Mr Torra said that last year, “the Spanish state repressed a right as basic as that of self-determination and also that of freedom of speech”. He called on pro-independence Catalans to “reclaim the spirit” of that ballot.

University students in Barcelona marked the day with a strike and demonstration in the city’s centre, while a large march, organised by pro-independence rank-and-file organisations, was held in Barcelona in the evening, along with others in Lleida, Tarragona and Girona.

Pro-independence flag

Early in the morning, activist groups known as Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) blockaded several roads, including the AP7 motorway outside Barcelona, and blocked the high-speed rail link between the Catalan capital and Girona. By midday roads and rail lines were clear.

Activists also broke a police cordon at the Spanish government’s headquarters in Girona, removed the Spanish flag hanging from the building and replaced it with a pro-independence one.

Although Mr Puigdemont, who is living in Belgium, appeared to reprimand the CDRs in a video message, Mr Torra approved. “Friends in the CDR, you pressure and you’re right to pressure,” he said.

The leader of the opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, said the Catalan president “has crossed another red line by saying that they have to keep pressuring, committing crimes”. He called for a new law to clamp down on separatist parties and for the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to take a tougher line against them.

‘The humiliation’

Albert Rivera, the leader of fellow unionist party Ciudadanos, tweeted: “Mr Sánchez, how much longer will you allow the violation of human rights and the humiliation of all Spaniards without applying [direct rule]?”

The Spanish government played down the significance of Mr Torra’s speech. “We are more interested in actions,” said public works minister José Luis Ábalos, who said he did not believe the Catalan leader’s words were an incitement to violence.

However, there were signs of disunity within the secessionist movement. Some demonstrators chanted calls for Mr Torra’s resignation, apparently in response to his government’s handling of the police on Saturday. During a march by a group of Spanish national police demanding better pay, the Catalan regional force baton-charged pro-independence demonstrators who were staging a counter-march nearby. During last year’s referendum, many pro-independence Catalans hailed their regional police as heroes for allowing the vote to take place.