The former head of Catalonia's regional government, Artur Mas, has gone on trial in Barcelona alongside two aides. He faces a 10-year political ban for organizing a referendum on the region's independence from Spain.
The controversial trial has reinvigorated pro-independence sentiments in Catalonia. Tens of thousands of Artur Mas' supporters protested in front of the Palace of Justice in Barcelona as Catalonia's former leader went on trial for ignoring a constitutional ban and going ahead with a nonbinding independence vote.
"There was no intention to commit any offense or disobey anyone," Mas told the court, adding that his government only wanted to "promote citizen participation by all means possible."
Mas' lawyers argue that he was exercising his "right to freedom of opinion" by holding the plebiscite and that the vote was organized by thousands of volunteers, whose help was crucial to realizing the referendum. The Spanish government, however, had previously refused to allow an official referendum to be held, saying the region already had autonomous status. Prosecutors are asking for a 10-year ban on Mas holding public office if he is convicted of charges of civil disobedience and abuse of office.
Prosecutors are also calling for fines and a nine-year disqualification from politics for the former regional vice president Joana Ortega and education councilor Irene Rigau, who both stand accused in the same case.
The trial against the 61-year-old, who served as Catalan president from 2010 to 2016, is being broadcast live around the country. Catalonia, a region with its own language and customs, has a long history of struggle with central government in Madrid, having faced serious subjugation under General Francisco Franco's rule until 1975.
Question of independence
In recent years, tensions between Barcelona and Madrid have sharply been on the increase, culminating in growing calls for outright independence. The independence movement first started gathering momentum in 2010 when Spain's Constitutional Court limited a special statute awarded to Catalonia in 2006, effectively taking away powers given to the region under the country's then-Socialist government.
Opinion polls have shown that Catalans are split on the question of independence, although a majority favor holding an officially binding referendum. More than 80 percent of those who cast their ballots in the non-binding 2014 plebiscite voted in favor of independence for Catalonia - however, only 2.3 million people out of a total of 6.3 million eligible voters took part.
Catalonia's current government has promised to hold a referendum by September 2017 - a binding one, it says. The pro-independence government says the vote will go through with or without Madrid's consent. Spanish Prime Minister Mariono Rajoy said he would not accept the result of the vote and has vowed to never allow an act that would risk the unity of Spain. A growing number of EU parliamentarians have also rejected the notion.
ss/rt (AP, AFP, dpa)