More than 800 people were hurt on Sunday as Spanish national police attempted to shut down polling stations and prevent voting from taking place in a disputed independence referendum in Catalonia. Riot police used rubber bullets, batons and brute strength to force their way into polling stations, forcibly remove Catalonians who were attempting to vote. Shocking television images showed voters being hit, thrown to the ground, beaten and pulled by the hair from the polling stations.

Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the Catalan regional assembly, is leading a chorus of condemnation against the Guardia Civil for their brutality in trying to enforce the Madrid government’s opposition to the referendum, one that had been declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. Despite the heavy-handed intervention by the national police, voting went ahead across the region that’s based around Barcelona and represents one-fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product.

Initial results announced late on Sunday night showed 2.26 million Catalans cast ballots in the plebiscite, with 92 per cent voting in favour of independence for the linguistically and culturally distinct region. The scale of the result should be no surprise to Spanish authorities given that most pro-Madrid supporters didn’t turn out to vote in a process that was considered to be both illegal and illegitimate. But despite trying to disrupt and disparage the referendum process, the government in Madrid of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has now a bigger issue to deal with. The actions of his police officers are a damning indictment of his failure to defuse the Catalan process in the first instance. The images of Guardia Civil brutalising peaceful citizens engaged in a democratic process is one that has tarnished the reputation of the force and of Spain itself.

For any Catalonians on the sidelines, the heavy-handed tactics have now fully polarised the region, and any trust that exists between Madrid and Barcelona has now been fully eroded at the end of police baton. Puigdemont will only be too willing to remind Catalonians that they have no alternative now but to separate from a Madrid government that let loose its police on those who simply tried to vote. For Rajoy, who played hardball in the weeks before the referendum by threatening prosecution for those engaged in the process, he must bear the responsibility for the actions of the Guardia Civil. He leads a democratic European nation, not a third-world dictatorship with goons in riot gear at his disposal to abuse and terrorise his citizens.