A huge crowd of demonstrators has rallied in Spain‘s capital Madrid in a major show of support for 12 Catalan politicians and activists standing trial for their role in organising a failed independence bid in 2017.
Amid heavy police presence, nearly 400 buses on Saturday carried people from across the northeastern region of Catalonia to attend the gathering, the first major separatist march held in Madrid.
In unusual scenes for the capital, the central Paseo del Prado boulevard was steeped in red, yellow and blue, the colours of the Estelada flag of the Catalan independence movement.
“I think it’s a fair judgement to say you’ve never heard the voice of Catalan independence spoken so loudly and with so many numbers here in Madrid,” Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from the demonstration, said.
“There are two phrases that have been prominent here: that democracy is about taking decision and that self-determination is a right, not a crime.”
Protest organisers put the turnout at 120,000, while police gave a figure of 18,000, according to Reuters news agency.
The defendants face decades in prison on rebellion and other charges for staging a banned referendum in October 2017 and declaring Catalan independence, although they took no action to implement that.
They went on trial at Spain’s Supreme Court in mid-February. Many of their supporters believe the defendants are “political prisoners”.
According to court filings, the defendants’ lawyers intend to claim that the Catalan separatists are being prosecuted for their Catalan nationalist political beliefs and the act of voting.
Most of the politicians standing trial come from two political parties: the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the centrist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT).
Leaders of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural (OC) – two pro-independence civil society organisations – also stand trial.
The 2017 vote registered a majority of Catalans voting in favour of independence but many people had boycotted the plebiscite, which Spain’s Supreme Court had labelled illegal.