Madrid: A Spanish court ordered two powerful Catalan separatists to be detained late Monday as Madrid gave the region’s leader a three-day ultimatum to spell out his plans on independence.
A judge at Spain’s National Court ordered Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez to be kept behind bars on sedition charges, accused of stirring up major protests in the run-up to Catalonia’s banned independence referendum on October 1.
The pair are the leaders of pro-independence citizens’ groups Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) respectively, both of which count tens of thousands of members and have emerged as key players in the Catalonia secession crisis.
“The state is playing at provocation,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said after the court ruling, as the two groups furiously called on the people of Catalonia to protest.
Residents in the Sants district of Barcelona heeded the call, taking to their balconies and hammering pots and pans as they displayed flags emblazoned with the words “yes” and “democracy”.
“We are angry,” said Bernat Morgades, a 22-year-old engineering student who joined a crowd of some 400 outside Catalan government offices.
“A democratic state should not put people in prison for mobilising the people.”
Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero also appeared in court on sedition charges, facing up to 15 years in jail for allegedly encouraging protests and failing to stop the referendum — though he was allowed to walk free.
The ruling against Cuixart and Sanchez came after another day of twists and turns as Spain struggles with its worst crisis since it returned to democracy in 1977.
Madrid warned Catalonia’s separatist leader Carles Puigdemont he only had three days to “return to legality” after he refused to say whether he would declare independence outright following the referendum outlawed by the courts and Madrid.
He had been initially ordered to give his answer by Monday, but stopped short of giving a definitive “yes or no” and instead called for talks with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Spain has given him until 0800 GMT on Thursday to clarify, but anything less than a full climb-down is likely to prompt moves by Madrid to impose direct control over the semi-autonomous region — the so-called “nuclear option”.
“You still have time to answer clearly and simply,” Rajoy urged Puigdemont, warning that weeks of instability were damaging the Spanish economy.
The crisis has showed no signs of abating since the violent police crackdown on referendum voters shocked the world.
Puigdemont declared last week that he was ready for Catalonia to “become an independent state” after the referendum produced a 90 per cent “Yes” vote, although turnout was only 43 per cent and many of those who back unity with Spain stayed at home.
The Catalan leader subsequently said however that he was “suspending” his independence bid to allow time for negotiations with Madrid — leaving Spain in limbo, rattling stock markets and worrying European leaders who are already grappling with Brexit.
Puigdemont and some separatist allies want mediation with Madrid over the fate of the 7.5 million-strong region, an idea the central government says is a non-starter.
Antonio Barroso, an analyst with Tenio Intelligence, said Rajoy’s likely next step will be to trigger article 155 of Spain’s constitution — a move that could result in Madrid taking full control of Catalonia in an unprecedented escalation.
“The obvious conclusion of the ongoing blame game is that further escalation in the standoff between the secessionist movement and the central government is ahead,” he said.
Catalonia has its own language and distinct culture but is deeply divided over independence.
Separatists argue the north-eastern region — representing about a fifth of Spanish gross domestic product — could prosper if it went its own way.
But those who back unity say a split would spell economic and political disaster.
The two biggest Catalan banks have already moved their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain, while ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has warned of a recession in the region if the crisis drags on.
Puigdemont, a 54-year-old former journalist, is under intense pressure from Madrid and world leaders to back off.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau on Monday urged him to abandon a unilateral independence bid, saying the uncertainty was “bad for everybody”.
But Puigdemont is also being squeezed by separatist allies to crack on with independence.
They have threatened mass strikes and protests in the event of a climb-down.