Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Barcelona for a second night to protest against the lengthy jail sentences given to local separatist leaders over their role in Catalonia’s failed bid for independence from Spain two years ago.
Nine politicians were found guilty of sedition by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday and sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for their involvement in organising an October 2017 independence referendum, which was ruled illegal.
Pro-secession leaders have pledged to keep pushing for a new referendum, saying the prison sentences strengthened the movement.
On Tuesday, some protesters in Barcelona threw cans and flares at riot police, while also setting fire to cardboard and rubbish in some parts of the city. They also tried to kick down security barriers set up around the Spanish government headquarters in central Barcelona.
Demonstrators also blocked motorways and a train station before being charged by police with batons.
Elsewhere, protesters lit candles and chanted “Freedom for political prisoners” in a rally organised by Omnium Cultural organisation, whose chairman Jordi Cuixart was among those convicted on Monday.
Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Barcelona, said the events of the past two days were “exactly the kind of tension that was anticipated” following the sentencing and that demonstrations are expected to continue for the rest of the week.
“Opinions and emotions have hardened around the whole issue,” she said, adding that in the two years since the referendum there has been little attempt to resolve the political standoff between Barcelona and Madrid.
“The political rhetoric on either side has been to double down on the message.”
A political problem yet to be solved
Oriol Junqueras, the Catalan regional government’s former deputy leader, was given the longest sentence: 13 years. In his first interview after the sentencing, he told Reuters News Agency that it would only galvanise the independence movement.
All the defendants were acquitted of the gravest charge, rebellion, but the length of the prison terms – which Junqueras said they planned to appeal in a European court – prompted anger in Catalonia.
For his part, Quim Torra, the head of the regional government, described the sentences as unacceptable and defended the mass protests.
“A new stage begins where we take the initiative and put the implementation of the right to self-determination back in the centre” of our proposals, Torra said, urging the central government in Madrid to pay heed and start talks to that effect.
On Monday, demonstrators had blocked railways on Monday and thousands descended on Barcelona’s international airport, where some clashed with police. An airport spokesman said 110 flights were cancelled on Monday and a 45 more were cancelled on Tuesday.
Two years after the debacle of the first plebiscite, Catalonia’s independence drive still dominates much of Spain’s fractured political debate, and will likely colour a national election on November 10, Spain’s fourth in four years.
“Yesterday, today and tomorrow, it remains a political problem that has to be solved,” acting Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said of the issue, calling for dialogue within the framework of the constitution.
But Borrell said the independence movement had ignored those in Catalonia who were not in favour of breaking away from Spain, saying, “This is a totalitarian attitude.”
Separatists have repeatedly rejected such comments.
Catalonia, once an independent region of Spain, has its own language, culture and customs, which were suppressed under the rule of Francisco Franco.
Barcelona’s devolved parliament has been pushing for greater autonomy from Madrid for decades, with calls intensifying following the 2008 financial crisis.
Pro-independence supporters claim Catalonia, which is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, offers more financial support to Spain than it receives from the central government in Madrid.
Many view the region’s strong economy as an indicator that it would be viable as a sovereign state.