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Spain jails Catalan separatist leaders, protesters take to streets

Barcelona’s international airport became the focal point of the protests. As thousands rallied at its entrance, riot police charged at the crowd using batons to prevent the risk of a forced mass entry, a police spokesman said.

Protesters clash with Spanish policemen outside El Prat airport in Barcelona on 14 October 2019 as thousands of angry protesters took to the streets after Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between nine and 13 years in jail for sedition over the failed 2017 independence bid. Picture: AFP

MADRID/BARCELONA - Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday jailed nine Catalan separatist leaders for between nine and 13 years for their role in a failed independence bid, a decision that triggered protests in the region and left the future course of the dispute uncertain.

Barcelona’s international airport became the focal point of the protests. As thousands rallied at its entrance, riot police charged at the crowd using batons to prevent the risk of a forced mass entry, a police spokesman said.

The airport chaos saw 67 flights cancelled and others delayed, while protesters in the separatist stronghold of Girona burned tyres on the train tracks, shutting the high-speed connection between Barcelona and France. Regional railways and roads were blocked at several places in the northwestern region.

Earlier, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the sentence signified the defeat of the independence movement, whose long-running campaign has caused Spain’s most serious political crisis since the death of dictator Francisco Franco four decades ago.

The strength of the protests could be the first indication of how the future looks for the independence struggle, which has so far been largely peaceful. Nor does the ruling answer the question of how to handle the separatism drive supported by nearly half of Catalonia’s population.

“This sentence is an attack on democracy and the rights of all citizens,” the president of the Catalan parliament Roger Torrent said. “Today we are all convicted, not just 12 people.”

The case concerned an independence referendum that was held in October 2017 despite being ruled illegal by Spanish courts, and the subsequent short-lived declaration of independence by the regional parliament.

The longest prison term - 13 years - was imposed on the Catalan government’s former deputy leader, Oriol Junqueras. The court convicted him and eight other leaders on charges of sedition and four of them of misuse of public funds.

Three other defendants were found guilty only of disobedience and not sentenced to prison. All defendants were acquitted of the gravest charge, rebellion.

“What happened on October 1 (in 2017) was not just a demonstration or a massive act of citizen protest,” the Madrid court said in its ruling. “It was a tumultuous uprising encouraged by the accused, among many others.”

Prime Minister Sanchez, a Socialist who had taken a less rigid line with the separatist movement than his conservative predecessor, said it was time to open a new chapter but he did not elaborate.

“Today’s decision confirms the defeat of a movement that failed to gain internal support and international recognition,” he said in a televised speech.

“RISE UP”

The jailed men sent out messages of defiance, urging people to take to the streets.

The CDR grassroots movement said on social media: “It’s time to rise up against the authoritarian fascism of the Spanish state and its accomplices. It is time for the #RevoltaPopular (popular revolt).”

In Barcelona, various main streets were blocked by protesters holding signs calling for “Freedom for political prisoners”. A crowd chanted “We’ll do it again” - a slogan used by separatist supporters who want to hold another referendum.

“No independence has ever been achieved peacefully,” said Dani Seva, 19, a social education student who walked out of class in protests. “If we stop fighting they (Spain) will win with non-ethical methods.”

The ruling is also likely to colour a national election on 10 November, Spain’s fourth in four years..

The jailed separatists said via social media that they would carry on their fight.

“Nine years in prison won’t end my optimism. Catalonia will be independent if we persist. Let us demonstrate without fear, let us move forward determinedly from non-violence to freedom,” said Jordi Sanchez, former leader of the Catalan National Assembly grassroots movement, who was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Catalan regional president Quim Torra, a separatist, called for an amnesty for all 12 leaders and said he would seek a meeting with King Felipe and Sanchez. He stopped short of repeating calls for civil disobedience.

Sanchez rebuffed the demand and said the sentences must be carried out, although he also suggested dialogue.

Some in Catalonia said they no longer believed in that.

“We had hope for dialogue, but the state is not up for dialogue. The sentence is very unfair, it’s a great shame and very poor democracy,” civil servant Angels Uibal said.

An opinion poll in July showed 48.3% of Catalans against secession and 44% in favour.

The court also issued an European arrest warrant for Carles Puigdemont, who was regional leader during its independence bid. He now lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium. In July 2018, the Spanish court dropped a warrant after Germany refused to extradite him.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who seeks independence for her own country, was among the few foreign figures to condemn the sentences, saying that “any political system that leads to such a dreadful outcome needs urgent change”.

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