Catalan protesters, police clash for second straight night

BARCELONA, Spain — Violent clashes erupted for a second consecutive night in Barcelona between police and protesters angry about the conviction of a dozen Catalan separatist leaders, as Spain launched an investigation Tuesday into an activist group organizing the protests.

Thousands of people held vigils near the Spanish government offices in Catalonia’s four provinces. But it was in the northeastern regional capital, Barcelona, where police charged at protesters after some hurled firecrackers and other objects at the officers and kicked temporary fences put in place to protect the building.

The protesters sang the Catalan anthem and shouted, “The streets will always be ours,” ‘’Independence,” as well as slogans calling Spanish police “occupying forces” and urging them to leave Catalonia. They erected improvised barricades with trash bins, fences, and piles of cardboard that they set on fire.

The evening vigils, also in Girona, Lleida and Tarragona, as well as smaller towns across Catalonia, had been called by ANC and Omnium, two grassroots pro-secession groups whose leaders Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart were sentenced on Monday to nine years in prison for sedition.

Seven politicians were also given prison terms of around a decade in Monday’s landmark Supreme Court ruling and three more were fined for disobeying the laws as they pushed ahead with a banned referendum on Oct. 1, 2017, and briefly declaring independence based on its results before Spain crushed the defiance.

Activists also blocked highways, smaller roads and railway tracks for brief periods on Tuesday, following an attempt to besiege Barcelona’s international airport the night before that left thousands of passengers stranded. Many, desperate to catch their flights, were forced to walk with their luggage on highways and across fields.

Authorities said that three people were arrested and more than 170 others injured in Monday’s protests, including about 40 police officers and a protester who lost an eye. The airport authority said that 110 flights were canceled on Monday and 45 on Tuesday. Nearly 1,000 were operating normally, AENA said.

Most impromptu protests are responding to an online campaign by Tsunami Democratic, a loose, leaderless grassroots group that uses encrypted messaging apps to call for peaceful disobedience.

Spain’s caretaker interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said that authorities were investigating the group.

The court also barred the 12 convicted Catalan separatists from holding public office. That has an immediate impact in the upcoming Nov. 10 Spanish election because six of them were planning to run as candidates to the national parliament.

The verdict is likely to be a central issue in the run up to the vote but “it is unlikely to substantially alter the electoral outlook unless the situation worsens significantly in the region,” said Antonio Barroso, a political risk analyst with the London-based Teneo consulting firm.

He said Catalan separatist politicians wanted to use the backlash against the ruling to woo pro-independence voters to the polls.

Others have feared that swelling support for Catalan separatism because of the sentences could make the next political term even more key to either breaking the deadlock with separatists or making it a chronicle problem. Spain’s caretaker prime minister and Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, who won the April election but failed to get support for a minority government, is hoping to remain in office.

But even from the early hours after the 493-page Supreme Court ruling was issued, very different views emerged from Madrid and Catalonia. While Sánchez called for beginning a “new phase” and urged Catalan separatists to abide by the law, the ruling invigorated the wealthy region’s independence movement, with many of its leaders making new calls to work toward effective secession or repeating the slogan “we will do it again.”

Cuixart told the Associated Press by email via his lawyer that he and the others sentenced by the Supreme Court will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“We have the moral obligation to denounce (Spain’s) authoritarian drift and appeal to European citizens to defend human rights,” Cuixart Tuesday.

The Catalan regional president, Quim Torra, said secessionists won’t give up their fight.

“A referendum is the most positive solution for solving this situation,” he told foreign reporters in Barcelona on Tuesday.

The caretaker Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, soon due to become the European Union’s top diplomat, said the sentence wasn’t resolving the underlying political problems that only dialogue “in the framework of the Constitution” could.

Spain’s constitutional law says that the country is indivisible.

“Yesterday, today and tomorrow it is and remains a political problem that has to be solved,” Borrell told foreign reporters, adding that Catalan separatists shouldn’t ignore Catalans like him who are against independence.

“When one excludes part of the population because they don’t think like one, and only considers as the people those who think like one, this is a totalitarian attitude,” he said.

Meanwhile, a former member of the Catalan regional government who was among the sentenced told the AP that he regretted that the situation ended so badly.

Santi Vila, who evaded a prison sentence but was fined for disobedience, said “we should have been more capable of creating a framework of trust between the government of Catalonia and the government of Spain” so as “to put the conflict on the right track.”

Considered a traitor by the pro-independence camp, Vila resigned as Catalonia’s business minister a day before the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared secession on October 27, 2017.

Protests are likely to extend throughout the week. A three-day student strike begins Wednesday in the region, and a worker’s union has called a separate strike for Friday.

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