Ex-Catalan leader on trial for ignoring independence referendum ban
The former head of Catalonia's regional government has gone on trial in Barcelona for ignoring a Constitutional ban and going ahead with a vote on the region's independence from Spain.
The five-day trial is likely to inflame long-standing tensions between the central government and the supporters of separatism in the wealthy north-eastern region of 7.5 million people.
Artur Mas, who stepped down as president of the regional government last year, faces a 10-year ban from holding public office for disobedience and wrong-doing.
Prosecutors are also calling for fines and a nine -year disqualification from politics for former regional vice president Joana Ortega and education councillor Irene Rigau, both accused in the same case of aiding the November 2014 vote.
Organisers at the time said 80% of the 2.3 million Catalans who cast a ballot voted to support creating a Catalonian state independent from Spain.
The mock referendum was deemed illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court five days earlier, but Mas and other officials gathered support from more than 40,000 volunteers who opened schools and installed voting stations.
"We are holding our head high, convinced that we did the right thing," Mas said on Sunday.
"We would do the same thing again."
On Monday, independence supporters staged a show of force, with thousands accompanying the defendants through Barcelona before the court appearance.
Protesters formed a 200-metre corridor in the last stretch leading to Catalonia's high court, cheering and waving unofficial flags of independence.
"We shall overcome" was the slogan in some banners in English, with a gigantic display reading "Love democracy".
Mas declined to answer questions from the prosecution during the hearing.
In replies to inquiries by his own defence lawyers, he blamed Spain's central authorities for not doing more to stop the vote.
He said his cabinet's aim "wasn't holding a vote that was immediately legally binding, but rather knowing people's opinion after massive protests in past years".
Polls consistently show that residents in Catalan who want to break from Spain are a minority, although the ranks of those who do want a vote on separatism have been swelling since the 2008 economic crisis.
Some lifelong secessionists argue only a separate Catalan state could protect their culture and their language - which is spoken side-by-side with Spanish.
In defiance of the Constitutional ban and fierce opposition by Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party, a new regional government in Catalan has promised to pass laws to enable a legally binding referendum later this year.
But it is unclear how a new vote would be different from the 2014 vote that was only seen as symbolic.
The national government has said that no vote will be allowed and has pledged to boost investments in Catalonia.
But only after securing a second term with a minority government in November did prime minister Mariano Rajoy launch an offer for dialogue in all matters except on a referendum on separatism.
"We are going to talk, but we all have to commit to comply with the law," Mr Rajoy said last week after a European Union summit in Malta.