Independence Protests in Barcelona

Independence  Protests in BarcelonaIndependence  Protests in Barcelona

Thousands of protesters shouting "Down with Spain's justice system" turned up on Monday in Barcelona at the trial of Catalonia's former leader Artur Mas, accused of civil disobedience for holding an independence referendum in 2014.

The trial has stoked pro-independence fervor in the wealthy, northeastern region of Catalonia at a time of high tensions between the local separatist government and Madrid, AFP reported.

Shouting "Independence, independence" and "We want to vote", some 40,000 people gathered on a large palm tree-lined avenue next to the courthouse, many of them holding separatist red and yellow flags.

Mas, Catalan president from 2010 to 2016, and two former members of his government are accused of serious civil disobedience and misconduct for having organized a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014 despite a ban by Spain's Constitutional Court, which deemed it illegal.

"Independence isn't on trial here; democracy is on trial," Mas told AFP in the courthouse.

"It's the first time that a democratic government is tried for having allowed people to vote. It's an unprecedented moment."

Speaking from Brussels, Belgium, where he is attending a meeting, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis retorted that the trial was merely a proof of the "rule of law" in Spain.

"What is on trial is an act that failed to acknowledge a Constitutional Court sentence, nothing more."

Prosecutors want Mas and his former associates banned from holding public office for nine to 10 years.

But their defense argues they were merely defending "the right to freedom of expression" of Catalans, many of whom want a say in the future of their 7.5 million-strong region.

Catalonia, a region with its own language and customs, has long demanded greater autonomy.

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