Catalan pro-independence protesters call for release of officials

Thousands gathered yesterday at the gates of Catalonia's judicial body in Barcelona to demand the release of a dozen officials arrested in connection with a vote on independence that Spanish authorities are challenging as illegal.

Thousands gathered yesterday at the gates of Catalonias judicial body in Barcelona (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The demonstrators answered a call by pro-independence civic groups to stage long-term street protests against the police surprise crackdown one day earlier.

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Acting on a judge’s orders, police seized ten million ballot papers and arrested at least 12 people, mostly Catalan government officials, suspected of coordinating the referendum. The arrests were the first involving Catalan officials since the campaign to hold an independence vote began in earnest in 2011.

Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras acknowledged that the crackdown had disrupted the referendum plans. “It’s evident that we won’t be able to vote like we have done in the past,” Mr Junqueras told broadcaster TV3.

Even so, he remained confident there will be a large turnout of Catalans on 1 October – whatever form the vote takes. Pro-independence leaders have insisted the ballot will go ahead despite the obstacles.

The Catalan National Assembly, a driving force behind the secession movement, urged people to gather at noon yesterday outside the region’s justice tribunal and bring tents if needed.

By midday, the protesting crowds filled a square the size of two soccer fields and erupted in slogans chanting “We will vote!” and “Hello democracy.” Many wrapped themselves in the “estelada” flag, which has become a symbol of those in favour of an independent Catalan republic, and some climbed lampposts to get a better view. We will be here, peacefully but present, until all of the arrested walk out free,” Assembly president Jordi Sanchez told the cheering crowds.

The regional police force cordoned off the area, and live video streaming from the ground showed people angrily whistling and jeering at a police officer who became entangled with a protester.

“Our motto is that we are not afraid,” said Malena Palau, a 21-year-old student participating in yesterday’s gathering. “We want to vote because we have the right to decide, regardless of what we vote.”

The protesters’ response began on Wednesday as news of the police raids on Catalan government offices and the arrests spread through social media. Some people camped out overnight at the gates of the regional department of economy, where civil guard investigators arrested two officials.