Catalans rally against separatist leaders' detention

4 min

Barcelona (AFP)

Some 200,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday after a judge ordered the detention of two Catalan separatist leaders, further inflaming tensions over Catalonia's chaotic referendum on splitting from Spain.

The demonstrators, many carrying red or white candles, chanted "Independence" as they marched through the city centre after observing a moment of silence.

Around 200,000 people took part in the rally, a spokesman for Barcelona municipal police said.

Candle-lit demonstrations were also held in Girona, Reus and other Catalan cities in protest of the Madrid-based National Court's Monday ruling to keep Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez behind bars pending investigations into sedition charges.

"They want us to be afraid so we stop thinking of independence, but the opposite will happen, we are more everyday and I think we will achieve it in the end," Elias Houariz, a 22-year-old baker, told AFP at the Barcelona rally.

The demonstrations came as the clock ticks down to Thursday, the deadline Madrid has set for Catalonia's separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to spell out whether or not he intends to declare independence outright following the banned October 1 referendum.

Puigdemont has so far declined to give a definitive response, calling instead for Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to come to the negotiating table.

But Rajoy rejects mediation as a non-starter and unless Puigdemont backs down, appears likely to start imposing direct control over the semi-autonomous region.

Doing so could further escalate Spain's worst political crisis since it emerged from military dictatorship in 1977.

- Economic jitters -

The referendum, marred by a police crackdown on voters, resulted in a 90-percent "Yes" vote. But turnout was only 43 percent as many supporters of Spanish unity stayed away after the Constitutional Court ruled the vote illegal.

The court on Tuesday struck down the Catalan law that paved the way for the referendum, ruling unanimously that the region does not have a "right to self-determination".

With the two sides stuck in a stalemate, Madrid announced late Monday that it was cutting its economic growth forecast for next year from 2.6 to 2.3 percent.

The prolonged uncertainty has rattled stock markets, while nearly 700 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia, according to official figures released Tuesday.

The Spanish league have delayed putting out to tender their international television rights amid uncertainty over what the Catalonia crisis could mean for Barcelona, La Liga president Javier Tebas said on Tuesday.

"This is a problem that could greatly affect the value of our competitions," he said.

- 'New phase' -

Thousands of workers in Barcelona and other cities staged a brief walkout at noon in protest at the detention of Cuixart and Sanchez.

The pair nicknamed the "two Jordis" are the leaders of pro-independence citizens' groups Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC).

The groups count tens of thousands of members each and have emerged as influential players in the crisis.

"We are entering in a new phase of mobilisations, and they will be peaceful as always," said Omnium spokesman Marcel Mauri.

"We will have direct action, using the strength of the people, he added without giving further details.

The men are accused of encouraging a major protest last month as Spanish police raided the Catalan administration's offices in the run-up to the referendum.

Police officers were trapped for hours and their vehicles vandalised as protesters ringed the building, with Cuixart and Sanchez standing on a police car calling for "permanent mobilisation" against the Spanish state.

The crime of sedition can carry up to 15 years in prison.

Though she opposes the current drive for independence, Barcelona's leftist Mayor Ada Colau blasted the move to detain Sanchez and Cuixart, who she said were being held as "political prisoners".

"The existence of political prisoners has no place in the current EU," she said, announcing the city council would halt meetings for two days in protest.

Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero has also been charged with sedition for allegedly failing to stop the referendum. He has been allowed to walk free, but is banned from leaving Spain.

- Catalans split -

With its own language and culture, Catalonia is proud of its autonomy but its 7.5 million people are split over whether to break away completely from the rest of Spain.

Supporters of independence say the region pays more into Spanish coffers than it gets back and could prosper by going it alone, but their opponents say secession would spell political and economic disaster.

Ratings agency Moody's warned Tuesday that the "impasse" over Catalonia -- which makes up about a fifth of Spain's economic output -- "leaves Spain's future credit trajectory unclear".