Hundreds of thousands of Catalans have marched peacefully through Barcelona in support of calls to free jailed separatist leaders, after the region’s mayors demanded it be allowed to map out its own political future.
The Catalan capital has been convulsed by almost two weeks of daily demonstrations since nine politicians and activists were jailed for between nine and 13 years for their role in an independence bid in 2017 that Spain’s courts had declared illegal.
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Grassroots groups Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural had hoped Saturday’s march would draw the largest crowds of any since the sentences were passed, acting as a counterweight to unrest that marred some demonstrations last week, when one gathering drew an estimated 500,000.
Local police put Saturday’s attendance at 350,000.
At the head of the march was regional government head Quim Torra, who earlier addressed hundreds of Catalan mayors after they endorsed a document demanding self-determination.
“We have to be capable of creating a republic of free men and woman … and overcoming the confrontational dynamic with a constructive one,” he told the mayors.
One marcher, Maria Dolors Rustarazo, 63, said she should also be in prison because she voted in the 2017 referendum, which Spanish courts outlawed.
“If [all separatist voters] … have to go to jail, we will go but I don’t think we would all fit,” she said.
She condemned last week’s rioting, which had hurt the pro-independence movement, but had understanding for young protesters being “angry at the lack of democracy”.
Spain’s main parties, including the minority Socialist government, have consistently rejected any moves towards secession, a stance they have reiterated in recent days as the country gears up for a national election on November 10.
Separately, thousands of people joined a rally called by Spain’s far-right Vox party in Madrid, with leader Santiago Abascal telling the crowds that only his faction could handle the Catalan crisis.
Shouting “Viva Espana”, they turned the city’s Columbus Square into a sea of red-and-yellow, as the crowds waved thousands of Spanish flags, cheering and chanting, among them many youngsters and families with children.
Addressing the crowds, Abascal took aim at the ruling Socialists.
“Faced with the betrayals of the Socialists, there is only Vox, and faced with criminal separatism, there is only Vox!” he roared, after also denouncing the conservative opposition People’s Party (PP) as “useless” and the centre-right Ciudadanos as “opportunists”.
Vox has taken a hard line on Catalan separatism and wants all regional pro-independence parties banned, with its message appealing to those who want to see Spain’s territorial integrity protected.
Although the party only entered Parliament in April, some pre-election opinion polls project that it may become the third-largest party after next month’s election.
On Sunday, activists from Catalan Civil Society (SCC) will hold a counter-demonstration by those who want the region to remain part of Spain and who want the protest violence to end.
“Those who oppose independence are a majority, and that is an important message for Catalonia, for Spain and the world, where often separatism is associated with Catalonia,” SCC head Fernando Sanchez Costa told the AFP news agency.
“It’s important to go back out and say: that’s enough violence and confrontation,” he said, warning that the unrest was causing damage to Catalan society.