Catalan referendum: More than 760 people injured by police

Spanish Guardia Civil guards drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Spanish Guardia Civil guards drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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More than 760 people were injured by police as they took part in a disputed referendum on Catalonian independence from Spain, emergency officials revealed.

The Spanish government had pledged to stop a poll declared illegal by the country’s constitutional court - and the country’s Prime Minister blamed the unrest on the Catalan government and his officials branded the authority’s actions as “proportionate”.

A protester falls on the ground after being hit in the face by a rubber bullet shot by Spanish National Police. Picture: AP

A protester falls on the ground after being hit in the face by a rubber bullet shot by Spanish National Police. Picture: AP

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau branded the PM “a coward...hiding behind thousands of police” and demanded Mariano Rajoy resign or be removed from office as a result of the violence.

A spokesman for Catalonia’s regional government said millions of votes would be counted and warned the Spanish government was “the shame of Europe” and would be made to answer to the international courts for the violent scenes.

Throughout yesterday, officers baton-charged and fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds in Catalan towns and cities. Police were filmed beating repeatedly people as they tried to confiscate ballot boxes.

Spain’s Interior Ministry said 12 police officers were injured in moves to prevent the referendum on independence that saw almost 100 polling stations closed down. Many inside were parents and their children, who remained in the buildings after the end of classes on Friday.

Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Picture: AFP/Getty Images

• READ MORE: Riot police smash way into Catalonia polling station

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon joined widespread international condemnation of the violence and called on the Spanish government to “change course”.

She Tweeted: “Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt.”

And she criticised the response from the UK Foreign Office calling it “shamefully weak” saying a “true friend would tell Spain what happened today was wrong”.

Hundreds of people protested outside the Spanish Embassy in Edinburgh yesterday in support of the region’s controversial referendum.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned the “shocking police violence” and urged Prime Minister Theresa May to raise concerns with her Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson last night rejected opposition calls for the UK to intervene, Tweeting: “The Catalonian referendum is a matter for the Spanish govt & people. Imp that Spanish constitution respected & rule of law upheld.

Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull blamed the violence directly on the Spain’s leaders saying Spanish National Police and Civil Guard forces were politically motivated and showed “a clear motivation to harm citizens”.

Thousands of Catalan independence supporters occupied schools and other buildings designated as polling stations in order to keep them open.

In Girona, riot police smashed their way into a polling station where Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote only for him to cast his ballot at another polling station.

Eyewitnesses told of how officers fired rubber bullets at protesters trying to prevent National Police cars from leaving as police confiscated ballot boxes from centres.

In one location, Barcelona’s Rius i Taule school, where some voters had cast ballots before police arrived it was reported 38 people had been injured.

Manuel Condeminas, a 48-year-old IT manager who tried to block police from driving away with the ballot boxes there, said people were repeatedly kicked and hit with batons and shields.

The Spanish government had vowed that force would not be used in trying to stop the referendum, but that voting would not be legally permitted as Spain’s Constitutional Court had suspended the vote.

Regional separatist leaders have vowed to declare independence “within 48 hours” if the “yes” side wins.

• READ MORE: Hundreds show support for Catalonia at Edinburgh protest

In a press conference last night PM Rajoy blamed the unrest on the Catalan government and called the referendum “a process that has only served to sow division, to confront citizens and to provoke unwanted situations has failed” and added that it has created “serious damage to coexistence”.

He said: “The responsibility for these acts solely and exclusively falls on those who promoted the rupture of legality and coexistence.”

He also thanked police and said they had acted with “firmness and serenity” in clashes with voters.

Emergency services said most of the wounded people, including children. had minor injuries such as bruising and cuts but that there were some serious injuries.

The PM said most Catalans had not wanted to and did not take part in the vote - contrary to a recent Catalan government poll that seven in ten people wanted a referendum on the territory’s future. It was estimated that support for independence was said to be at about 41%.

He praised Spanish police for defending role of law, thanked the EU for its support and said the actions of the Spanish government were within the law.

He added: “We cannot allow the progress of the past 40 years to be replaced by blackmail.”

Thousands who gathered in the centre of Barcelona to watch Mr Rajoy reacted at anger at his failure to apologise for the violence.

Earlier, Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said police had “acted with professionalism and in a proportionate way”.

Tensions have been rising since the vote was called in early September, crystallising years of defiance by separatists in the affluent region, which contributes a fifth of Spain’s economy.

As one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, Catalonia enjoys some autonomy but key areas such as infrastructure and taxes are in the hands of Madrid.

Separatist Catalans have long complained of contributing too much to the state while not getting enough in return.

Courts and police have been cracking down for days to halt the vote, confiscating ten million paper ballots and arresting key officials involved.

Catalan flags littered the streets in the centre of Edinburgh as people took part in a march to back the vote and protest against the violence.

• READ MORE: Brian Wilson: Nicola Sturgeon should keep her nose out of Catalonia

Monica Chamorro, 37, originally from Girona, said she was “appalled” at the actions of the Spanish government. She said: “This morning I was just crying, people are going to vote and they are met with force. We will accept the vote for yes, we will accept the vote for no, but we have to have the right to cast our vote.”

“That is why we have come, to show that we want democracy, that is what we stand for.”

Andrew McCourt, 45, travelled from Wishaw to join the protests and described the situation in Catalonia as “ridiculous”. He said: “There’s a swell of support here from Scotland towards Catalonia, because what’s happening there is just disgusting. The Catalans deserve their right to choose and we support that right.”

And Capital resident Steve Gray, 48, said: “ Many Scots feel an affinity with the Catalans over the issue of independence and should that area want a vote on this, they should get it - just as we did.”

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson added to the calls for Spanish authorities to exercise restraint.

She said: “If the situation in Catalonia is to be resolved, the answer will come through dialogue and diplomacy, and not through violence.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said the Spanish police response was “unacceptable”, adding: “Police in a democracy should never drag people violently out of polling stations, whatever the arguments for or against holding a referendum. The police response looks to have been brutal and completely disproportionate.”

A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said last night: “The referendum is a matter for the Spanish government and people. We want to see Spanish law and the Spanish constitution respected and the rule of law upheld.”

Spanish unionists argue Catalonia already enjoys broad autonomy within Spain, along with other regions like the Basque Country and Galicia.