Wednesday 11 December, 2019

Riots darken Catalan separatist dream of peaceful secession

Policemen run as a police van drives over a burning barricade during clashes between protestors and police in Barcelona, Spain, October 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Policemen run as a police van drives over a burning barricade during clashes between protestors and police in Barcelona, Spain, October 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Catalonia's separatist leader vowed Thursday to hold a new vote to secede from Spain in less than two years as the embattled northeastern region grapples with a wave of violence that has tarnished a movement proud of its peaceful activism.

"We can't remain in this cage that keeps adding bars," Quim Torra told lawmakers. "If we have been condemned to 100 years in prison for putting out the ballot boxes, the response is clear: we'll have to put the ballot boxes out again for self-determination."

Lengthy prison sentences and fines for a dozen leaders that Spain's Supreme Court blames for orchestrating the wealthy region's latest drive for independence have led this week to some of the darkest episodes in a decade of swelling separatist sentiment.

Riots have made central areas of Barcelona, a leading European tourist destination, a no-go zone. On Thursday, cleaning brigades worked to clear charred cars and hundreds of burned trash bins used as improvised barricades from the streets of the regional capital, where confrontations between rioting youths and police the night before led to scenes of panic.

Authorities said 80 people were injured, including 46 police officers, and that 33 people were arrested amid destruction and fires that raged also in other Catalan towns.

Police said the protesters hurled gasoline bombs, stones, firecrackers and bottles at them. Fireworks hit a police helicopter, although no major damage was caused. Regional and national police responded with foam bullets and batons.

Authorities also said that a 17-year-old was recovering from a head injury after online footage showed how he had been caught in front of a trash container that was charged by a speeding police van in the city of Tarragona.

The rioting has put the spotlight again on the self-appointed Committees for the Defense of the Republic, or CDRs, and a new shadowy, leaderless online platform, Tsunami Democratic, that uses encrypted messaging apps to advocate for "peaceful civil disobedience."

The groups, often following the blueprints of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and elsewhere, have become popular among technology-savvy young Catalans since the October 2017 banned referendum that eventually led to the separatist leaders' convictions. That vote was held amid heavy violence from police toward voters refusing to move from polling stations.

Spain has cracked down on the CDRs, jailing some members as it probes them for possible terrorism offenses, while Spain's Interior Minister said Wednesday that its investigation is close to finding out who is behind the Tsunami Democratic.

The new approach has overshadowed the traditional demonstrations that for years had been overwhelmingly peaceful, often organised by ANC and Omnium, two pro-independence civil society groups long rooted in Catalan society.

Under fire for holding back over rejecting the street violence, Torra appeared on television late on Wednesday, blaming the rioting on provocateurs.

On Thursday, at the regional parliament, he used stronger words to reject the riots, specifying that he was against violence coming from "everywhere," including police.

Torra also called the conviction of a dozen fellow separatists "the biggest blow to democracy" in the four decades following Gen. Francisco Franco's regime, and said the sentence was a reason to hold a new vote on independence before his term ends in 2021.

Spain's post-dictatorship 1978 Constitution states that the country's territorial unity is indivisible, and courts have banned previous attempts to hold referendums.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain's Socialist leader who is facing a November 10 election, has blamed "organized groups of extremists" for the rioting in Catalonia, but has ruled out taking drastic measures, despite calls by rival parties to do so. On Thursday he was presiding over a meeting with intelligence officials and security experts to analyse the situation in the northeastern region.

New road and railway blockades were in place on Thursday, including on a main highway leading to France.

Thousands of people have also been marching peacefully since Wednesday toward the regional capital, Barcelona. Students are on strike, and trade unions are planning to join them on Friday.

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