On trial, ex-Catalan chief defends independence vote

Barcelona (AFP) - Tens of thousands of supporters protested Monday in Barcelona as Catalonia's former leader Artur Mas went on trial for holding a non-binding independence referendum in 2014 -- a move he defended as legitimate.

The trial has stoked pro-independence fervour in Spain's wealthy, northeastern Catalonia region at a time of high tensions between the local separatist government and Madrid.

Shouting "independence, independence", and "we want to vote," some 40,000 people gathered on a wide palm tree-lined avenue next to the courthouse, many of them holding separatist red, yellow and blue flags in strong gusts of wind.

Mas, Catalan president from 2010 to 2016, and two former members of his government are accused of serious civil disobedience and misconduct for having organised a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014 despite a ban by Spain's Constitutional Court, which deemed it illegal.

"I am responsible for everything," Mas told the court, speaking in Catalan even when the judge addressed him in Spanish.

"My initiative and that of the government had deep, clear and purely democratic roots."

- 'Judicial harassment' -

Prosecutors want Mas and his former associates banned from holding public office for nine to 10 years.

But their defence argues they were merely defending "the right to freedom of expression" for Catalans, many of whom want a say in the future of their 7.5 million-strong region.

Catalonia, a region with its own language and customs, has long demanded greater autonomy.

But in recent years, tensions with Madrid have markedly increased, as have calls for outright independence, culminating with the election in 2015 of a pro-independence government in Catalonia backed by a majority separatist parliament.

A watershed moment was in 2010, when Spain's Constitutional Court watered down a special statute awarded to Catalonia in 2006 under the Socialist government, giving it more powers.

Supporters of independence slammed what they said was "judicial harassment" and asked for a referendum similar to the one organised in Scotland in 2014.

After the Constitutional Court banned that, Mas and his associates instead held the non-binding vote for which they are on trial until Friday.

The court also stopped that vote, but defence lawyers argue that most of it had already been organised by the time the ban came and that the rest was then implemented by thousands of volunteers.

This, they say, avoided involvement of the regional government which would clearly have broken the law.

"There was no intention to commit any offence or disobey anyone," Mas told the court, adding his government just wanted to "promote citizen participation by all means possible."

But prosecutors point to the fact that the regional government requisitioned schools to set up polling booths and provided 7,000 computers as proof that it was involved -- a matter that was not addressed by Mas and his two former associates in court.

In the end, more than 80 percent of those who cast their ballot in the 2014 vote did so for independence -- although just 2.3 million people out of a total of 6.3 million eligible voters took part.

- Unity of Spain -

Catalonia's current government has promised to hold a referendum in September -- a binding one this time, with or without Madrid's consent.

But how exactly it will go ahead is unclear, as the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists that this type of local, one-region-only referendum is unconstitutional, and has vowed never to allow an act that would risk the unity of Spain.

Rajoy has tasked his deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, to start regular talks with Catalan authorities, but so far these have not yielded any results.

"Reconciliation is impossible because they've said 'no' to dialogue for so long," said Merce Sancho Tusef, a 68-year-old protester.

The Catalans themselves remain divided over the issue -- 44.9 percent want independence while 45.1 percent don't, according to a recent poll conducted by a Catalan public institute.

A large majority, however, wants a referendum.

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