Mass protest in Barcelona demands freedom for Catalan leaders

BARCELONA (AFP): Tens of thousands of Catalans gathered Saturday to demand the release of regional officials who were jailed for their push for independence from Spain, which has left the country mired in a political crisis.

The march kicked off in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, at 1600 GMT and come a day after the region’s parliament speaker – one of dozens of lawmakers sacked by Madrid last month – was released from jail after posting 150,000 euros bail.

Thousands gathered on an avenue next to the region’s parliament building waving Catalan independence flags and chanting “Freedom!” while some held up banners announcing: “SOS Democracy”.

Children in riding helmets climbed castells – the region’s traditional human towers – as others held placards bearing caricatures of some jailed lawmakers.

The Catalonia crisis has caused concern in the European Union as the bloc deals with Brexit and uncertainty over the fate of the region of 7.5 million people. More than 2,400 businesses have moved their legal headquarters elsewhere.

On Wednesday a general strike called by a pro-independence union caused travel chaos, blocking 60 roads and train lines including Spain’s main highway link to France and the rest of Europe.

Since lawmakers in Catalonia – a wealthy region with its own language and distinct culture – declared independence on October 27 following a banned referendum, pro-separatist officials have come under huge pressure from Madrid.

The central government has dismissed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, his government and the parliament, suspended the region´s autonomy and called for new elections there on December 21.

Barcelona’s popular mayor, just hours before she was due to attend the rally, railed against the actions of Puigdemont’s government.

“They’ve provoked tensions and carried out a unilateral independence declaration which the majority do not want,” Ada Colau told a meeting of her party members.

“They’ve tricked the population for their own interests.”

Eight members of the axed Catalan cabinet are currently detained on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

A further six fired officials including parliament speaker Carme Forcadell were granted bail this week on similar charges by Spain´s Supreme Court.

Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium awaiting a hearing on possible extradition back to Spain after Madrid issued a EU-wide warrant.

‘We want freedom’

Puigdemont and four ex-ministers say they are in Brussels because they cannot be guaranteed a fair trial back home.

The deposed leader called on Catalans to create a “common noise” during Saturday´s demonstration.

“Although some of us are far away from you and others are in prison, we have an opportunity to express loudly and clearly that we want freedom and democracy,” Puigdemont told Catalan television.

“We also want the return home of all those in prison or abroad.”

Saturday´s protest has been organised by two pro-independence lobby groups, ANC and Omnium, whose two leaders are also detained.

Puigdemont has said he travelled to Brussels after declaring independence in order to raise international awareness on the treatment of separatists in Spain.

But the European Union, nervous that Catalan independence could stir up separatist tensions in several member states, has repeatedly backed the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in its handling of the crisis.

Rajoy himself will be in Barcelona on Sunday — his first visit to Catalonia since the independence crisis erupted — to show support for his Popular Party candidates in next month´s vote.