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Catalans keep up pressure for split from Spain with second day of protests

REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

By Joan Faus
Demonstrators blocked a train station and several motorways in Spain's Catalonia region on Tuesday, a second day of protests over Monday's jailing of nine separatists by the supreme court over their role in a failed secession bid.

Police intervened to remove the protesters, who had turned out in smaller numbers than on Monday, while a rally in central Barcelona closed a main thoroughfare to traffic and pro-independence leaders vowed to keep pushing for a new referendum.

Various other rallies were planned for later in the day and pro-independence labour union confederation IAC announced a general strike in Catalonia on Friday against labour laws which unions say infringe workers' rights.

Oriol Junqueras was given the longest sentence, of 13 years, for his role in organising the 2017 referendum, which was ruled illegal. He told Reuters in his first interview after the sentence that it would only galvanize the independence movement.

"We're not going to stop thinking what we think, ideals can't be derailed by (jail) sentences," he said, asserting that a new plebiscite was "inevitable".

The head of the regional government, Quim Torra, defended the mass protests over sentencing he described as unacceptable.

"A new stage begins where we take the initiative and put the implementation of the right to self-determination back in the centre" of our proposals, Mr Torra said, urging Madrid to pay heed and start talks to that effect.

On Monday, demonstrators blocked railways and thousands descended on Barcelona's international airport, where some clashed with police, after Mr Junqueras and eight others were convicted of sedition and jailed for nine to 13 years.

A spokesman for the airport said it had cancelled 110 flights on Monday and a further 45 on Tuesday due to Monday's disruption.

All the defendants were acquitted of the gravest charge, rebellion, but the length of the prison terms – which Mr Junqueras said they planned to appeal in a European court - prompted anger in Catalonia.

Two years after the debacle of the first plebiscite, Catalonia's independence drive still dominates much of Spain's fractured political debate, and the ruling will likely colour a national election on Nov. 10, Spain's fourth in four years.

Acting foreign minister Josep Borrell acknowledged the issue posed to Spain by the independence drive will not end with the sentencing: "Yesterday, today and tomorrow, it remains a political problem that has to be solved," he said, calling for dialogue within the framework of the constitution.

But Mr Borrell added that the independence movement had ignored those in Catalonia who were not in favour of breaking away from Spain, saying: "This is a totalitarian attitude." Separatists have repeatedly rejected such comments.

A dialogue could focus on greater autonomy for Catalonia, possibly within a more federal plurinational framework in Spain, said Santi Vila, one of three sentenced leaders who were not sent to prison.

A known critic of the secessionist agenda who had resigned as Catalan government business counselor just before the independence declaration, Mr Vila called for a new election in the region, something regional government head Mr Torra opposes.

"It looks reasonable that when two governments have such a communication problem ... it's important to ask citizens if the way being taken is correct or not," said Mr Vila, 46. While he also supports a referendum, he says it should not be about full independence but self-government powers.

Spain's main parties have consistently refused to hold an independence referendum in Catalonia, though the acting Socialist government says it is open to dialogue on other issues.

Cabinet spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said it was time to "start a new political chapter," insisting the government wanted to talk with the Catalans - within the framework of the Constitution.

Diana Riba, wife of convicted leader Raul Romeva, told Reuters the independence drive would prevail over time.

"This is a very long process but we will see results as we did with the feminist movement, how they grew until becoming massive and achieving the rights that they were seeking," she said, calling for "everyone to take to the streets". (Reuters)

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