BARCELONA, Spain — Thousands of protesters gathered outside a Barcelona court on Monday as the former head of the eastern Spanish region of Catalonia went on trial for staging a 2014 informal referendum on independence in breach of a legal order.
Catalonia, a Mediterranean region with its own language and culture, is home to a strong separatist movement and pro-independence campaigners held a vote two years ago on whether to break away from Spain while Artur Mas was regional governor.
The poll was carried out without legal backing because the central Spanish government blocked it in the courts, saying it was against the constitution. The symbolic ballot was manned by volunteers to get around the restrictions.
Mas, who stepped down as leader last year, stands accused of disobedience against the state and wrong-doing as a public official. He could face a 10-year ban from public office if found guilty.
“Today, many of us feel as if we’re being tried,” current regional head Carles Puigdemont said outside the court surrounded by allied Catalan politicians, regional flags and supporters with signs calling for independence.
The trial comes at a time of high tension between Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s minority government and Catalonia, where a vehemently pro-independence local administration took power in 2015.
The regional administration has vowed to hold an official referendum on its potential split from Spain later this year.
Rajoy has continued to stonewall any talk of a referendum, saying he is open to dialogue but reiterating that a ballot on independence is against the law.
“We can talk but everyone must obey the law,” he said on Friday in Malta.
(Reporting By Albert Gea, Writing by Sonya Dowsett, Editing by Paul Day and Angus MacSwan)
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Mr Mas and members of the Catalan government sing the Catalan national anthem outside the court. Getty Images
Thousands of supporters filled the streets outside a court in Barcelona on Monday as the former Catalan president Artur Mas went on trial.
He is accused of involvement in the Spanish region’s unofficial vote on independence in November 2014.
Mr Mas is accused of serious civil disobedience after the vote went ahead in defiance of Spain’s constitutional court.
Prosecutors are calling for him to be disqualified from office for ten years.
It is the first time that a leader of the Catalan government has gone on trial. Artur Mas is going on trial with two former associates. The case is being used by pro-independence supporters to galvanise their campaign, and the current government has promised to hold a new vote in September.
Read more here: Will Catalonia try to secede this year?
The 9 November 2014 vote, which was not binding, went ahead despite fierce opposition by the Spanish government.
Catalan officials say more than 80% of those who voted backed independence, however only two million voters out of an estimated 5.4 million eligible took part.
Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest and most highly-industrialised regions, and also one of the most independent-minded.
With a distinct history stretching back to the early Middle Ages, many Catalans think of themselves as a separate nation from the rest of Spain.