Thousands protest as ex-Catalan leader stands trial

Artur Mas faces ban from political office over Catalonia’s 2014 independence vote

Catalans protest outside a court in Barcelona  during the first day of the trial of former  Catalan  leader  Artur Mas. Photograph:  Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Catalans protest outside a court in Barcelona during the first day of the trial of former Catalan leader Artur Mas. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

 

The former head of Catalonia’s regional government has gone on trial in Barcelona for ignoring a Spanish constitutional ban and going ahead with a vote on the region’s independence from Spain.

Thousands of supporters accompanied Artur Mas and two politicians accused of aiding him through Barcelona before the court appearance.

The five-day trial is likely to inflame long-standing tensions between the central government and separatists in the wealthy northeastern region of 7.5 million people.

Mr Mas, who stepped down as president of the Catalan regional government last year, faces a 10-year ban from holding public office for disobedience and wrongdoing.

Prosecutors are also calling for fines and a nine-year disqualification from politics for former regional vice-president Joana Ortega and education councillor Irene Rigau, who are both accused of aiding the November 2014 vote.

At the time, organisers of the vote said 80 per cent of the 2.3 million Catalans who cast a ballot voted to support creating an independent Catalonian state.

The mock referendum had been deemed illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court five days before it was due to take place, but Mr Mas and other officials went ahead with the vote with the help of more than 40,000 volunteers, who opened schools and installed voting stations.

“We are holding our head high, convinced that we did the right thing,” Mr Mas said on Sunday. “We would do the same thing again.”

Protests

On Monday, protesters formed a 200m corridor as the defendants walked the last stretch to Catalonia’s high court.

The demonstrators cheered and waved unofficial flags of independence.

Mr Mas declined to answer questions from the prosecution during the hearing.

In replies to inquiries by his own defence lawyers, he blamed Spain’s central authorities for not doing more to stop the vote.

He said his cabinet’s aim “wasn’t holding a vote that was immediately legally binding, but rather knowing people’s opinion after massive protests in past years”.

Polls consistently show that residents in Catalonia who want to break from Spain are a minority, although the number who want a vote on separatism have been swelling since the 2008 economic crisis.

Some lifelong secessionists argue that only a separate Catalan state could protect their culture and their language - which is spoken side-by-side with Spanish.

In defiance of the constitutional ban and fierce opposition by Spain’s ruling conservative Popular Party, a new regional government in Catalonia has promised to pass laws to enable a legally-binding referendum later this year.

The national government has said that no vote will be allowed and has pledged to boost investments in Catalonia.

“We are going to talk, but we all have to commit to comply with the law,” Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy said last week after a EU summit in Malta.

AP