The president of Catalonia’s regional government went on trial in Barcelona on Monday for “disobedience”, after refusing to remove separatist symbols from public buildings, amid heightened tensions in northeast Spain.
Quim Torra’s trial comes after Spain’s Supreme Court on October 14 sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to lengthy jail terms over an abortive 2017 independence bid, setting off a wave of angry protests that repeatedly descended into violence.
In March, Spanish electoral authorities ordered Torra to remove separatist symbols from public buildings to respect institutional neutrality ahead of parliamentary elections in April.
They objected in particular to a banner outside the Catalonian regional government headquarters that read “Freedom for political prisoners and exiles”, next to a yellow ribbon indicating support for the detained Catalan separatist leaders who were sentenced last month.
“It’s more symbolic than anything else,” said Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Barcelona.
“The maximum penalty that Torra could receive would be to be disbarred from holding public office for 20 months – that’s what the prosecution is seeking – as well as a fine of some $32,000.”
The Catalan government ignored two deadlines to take the banner down before finally ceding just before a planned police intervention.
Torra is the third consecutive regional president to have fallen foul of Spanish laws. “With that, he is really putting his name down to that recent trend of history,” added Gallego.
The Parliament of Catalonia and its regional government are dominated by separatist parties, but the region itself remains deeply divided and the recent crisis has exacerbated the split.
“There has been plenty of criticism about Quim Torra’s action, that he hasn’t really spent his tenure as president being a unifying force, but more as an activist. That’s the criticism from his detractors here,” said Gallego.
In the recent general election in Spain, Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists won with the most seats, but not with enough to form a government.
“He will need to rely on the Catalan parties to push through some kind of government,” said Gallego. “If he is going to have any success in this, that is going to require not just some favours, but some serious suggestions from the Catalans as to how they can actually resolve this issue, and form some kind of dialogue.”
On Saturday, dozens of protesters crowded into Barcelona’s main railway station in the latest show of dissent to grip the city. Most staged a sit-in while a handful scuffled with police.
Police said the protest was limited to one station and protesters were removed after about an hour, joining a wider crowd who had gathered outside the station, some waving separatist flags.