Catalonia’s president has accused Spain’s central government of “totalitarian” behaviour after police arrested the region’s junior economy minister and 12 others in raids of Catalan government offices in the run-up to a planned independence referendum.
Carles Puigdemont, the regional leader, denounced Wednesday’s operation as “a coordinated aggression by the Spanish government’s police force” to stop the Catalans from going ahead with the October 1 vote.
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“The Spanish state has by all rights intervened in Catalonia’s government and has established emergency rule,” Puigdemont said in a televised address.
“We condemn and reject the anti-democratic and totalitarian actions of the Spanish state,” he said, adding that Catalans should still turn out in force to vote in the referendum on a split from Spain that the central government in Madrid has declared illegal.
Besides arresting Josep Maria Jove, the junior economy minister, police also entered the local government offices of the economy, interior, foreign affairs, welfare, telecommunications and tax, Catalan government sources said.
A dozen high-ranking local officials were arrested, local La Vanguardia newspaper said. The police confirmed they were carrying out raids connected with the banned referendum, but did not give details. The Catalan government sources could not confirm the other arrests.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defended the crackdown, saying that the operations in Catalonia were the result of legal rulings and were to ensure the rule of law.
”The government is fulfilling its obligation, and I have to say that we will continue to do so until the end,” he said.
Later on Wednesday, thousands of pro-independence supporters gathered outside the regional government offices in the centre of Catalonia’s main city of Barcelona, waving the red-and-yellow Catalan flag and chanting “Occupying forces out” and “Where is Europe?”.
“These protesters are very passionate, but a number of them are carrying flowers, saying we will remain peaceful because we want to fight the central Spanish government with smiles and democracy,” Al Jazeera’s Karl Penhaul, reporting from the protest in Barcelona, said.
Police efforts to stop the referendum have intensified in recent days as the northeastern region shows no signs of halting it.
Acting under court orders, police have raided printers, newspaper offices and courier services in a search of campaign literature, instruction manuals for running voting stations, and ballot boxes.
On Tuesday, the Civil Guard, a national police force, seized more than 45,000 envelopes packed in cardboard boxes that the Catalan government was ready to send to notify people around the region about the referendum.
The first of more than 700 Catalan mayors were also forced to appear before the state prosecutor on Tuesday after they said they would back the referendum.
Spain’s Constitutional Court has suspended the vote after the central government challenged its legality.
Rajoy’s government says the referendum goes against the country’s 1978 constitution which states Spain is indivisible.
Under Article 155 of Spain’s constitution, Madrid has the power to suspend the regional government’s authority to rule. It has yet to exercise this option as it seeks to block the vote through the courts.
Opinion polls show Catalonia’s roughly 7.5 million residents are divided on independence.
A survey commissioned by the regional government in July showed 49.4 percent of Catalans were against independence while 41.1 percent were in favour.
Over 70 percent of Catalans want a legal referendum on independence to settle the issue.