Catalans stage vigils ahead of trials

LOSING MOMENTUM::Protests are planned in Spain and abroad as 12 separatist politicians go on trial on Tuesday, but independence protests have seen falling participation

AFP, BARCELONA, Spain

Sun, Feb 10, 2019 - Page 3

With vigils and concerts outside prisons, Catalan independence supporters for months have shown their backing for 12 separatist leaders who are to go on trial on Tuesday over their bid to break the autonomous region away from Spain.

Now that the highly anticipated trial is finally about to get underway at the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, they have vowed to step up their protests in another show of solidarity.

While just 12 leaders are to sit in the dock over their role in the failed 2017 independence bid, many Catalan separatists feel that they are also being put on trial for having taken part in a banned referendum held on Oct. 1 that year.

“I’m a lifelong separatist and I voted on Oct. 1, it’s as if I was being tried,” retired teacher Eugenia Fernandez said at a recent vigil held for the detained Catalan leaders at the Plaza de la Vila de Gracia in Barcelona.

“We’re here because of the huge injustice that our government is in jail or exile for doing what we asked them to do — fight to set up a Catalan republic,” the 67-year-old said.

The vigil that Fernandez took part in has been held every Monday evening for the past 15 months at the square in Gracia, a bohemian district of the Catalan capital, which is also its most pro-separatist.

People held up large black and white images of the Catalan leaders, as well of those who fled abroad after the failed independence bid, along with the word “freedom” in Catalan and English.

Only the chime of a clock on top of an imposing 19th century tower in the center of the square broke the silence.

Nine of the leaders have been charged with rebellion, with some also accused of misuse of public funds. They have all been in pretrial detention for months, some of them for more than a year.

“This is a reaction against the brutality of this trial, which is not against a few people, but is instead against Catalan political feeling,” said award-winning Catalan writer Ramon Solsona, who read some poems at the vigil.

Similar events have been held across the northeastern region, where the leaders have obtained near-martyr status among many separatists, who see them as political prisoners.

The 12 defendants face prison sentences of between seven and 25 years if convicted, with former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras at risk of the longest sentence.

Catalonia’s president at the time of the secession bid, Carles Puigdemont, is not among those on trial, as he fled to Belgium, where he regularly receives visits from top Catalan separatists.

With Catalan separatist parties divided over strategy — some calling for more civil disobedience, while others favor dialogue with the central government — the cause of the jailed Catalan leaders helps keep them united.

Polls show that the region remains split over the issue of independence, and separatist protests — which in the past drew more than 1 million people — appear to have lost strength.

Pro-independence groups have responded by holding smaller events to show support for the detained separatist leaders.

The defendants were moved from prisons in Madrid to jails in Catalonia shortly after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party came to power in June last year, in what was seen as a goodwill gesture.

Since then separatists have gathered regularly outside of the Catalan jails where they are being held, holding concerts, camping outside overnight and forming human pyramids called castells, a Catalan tradition.

Separatist parties and associations have vowed to stage a wave of protests during the trial, starting with demonstrations on Tuesday and Saturday in Barcelona, followed by a general strike across Catalonia on Thursday next week. A major protest is scheduled in Madrid on March 16.

Protests are also planned outside of Spain, in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and London.

“In the end, they are judging all of us. They are judging an entire people and its right to self-determination,” Catalan President Quim Torra said last month at an event with relatives of the jailed leaders.