Catalan ex-president Artur Mas barred from holding public office

Two-year ban comes with €36,500 fine for disobeying Spanish constitutional court over 2014 independence referendum

The former Catalan president Artur Mas has been banned from holding public office for two years after being found guilty of disobeying the Spanish constitutional court by holding a symbolic independence referendum three years ago.

On Monday, the Catalan high court convicted Mas, former vice-president Joana Ortega and former education minister Irene Rigau of defying the constitutional court by pressing ahead with the non-binding vote in November 2014.

Mas was also fined €36,500 (£31,900). Ortega was banned from holding office for 21 months and fined €30,000, while Rigau was banned for 18 months and fined €24,000.

Speaking after the trial, Mas said he would appeal to the supreme court, and was prepared to take the case to the European courts because he had little faith in the Spanish judicial system.

“In the Spanish state, the law is not the same for everybody,” he told a press conference on Monday afternoon at which Ortega and Rigau also appeared. “We have been condemned for defending ideas that are not liked.”

His successor, Carles Puigdemont, contrasted the sentence with the news that Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, plans to stage a second independence referendum. “What a mistake!” the Catalan leader tweeted of the verdict. “How different from stable and healthy democracies.”

Mas, who governed Catalonia from 2010 to 2016, said no one had deliberately sought to defy the Spanish authorities.

“There was no intent to commit any crime or disobey anyone,” he told the trial in February. “Our aim was to rise to the challenge and promote participation by all possible means.”

Supporters of Catalonian independence demonstrate in Barcelona in 2015.
Supporters of Catalonian independence demonstrate in Barcelona in 2015. Photograph: Action Press/Rex Shutterstock

He also asked why the Spanish judiciary had not done more to prevent the vote: “If this was so clearly a crime, why didn’t the constitutional court do anything to stop it?”

The constitutional court ruled the referendum was illegal five days before it was held on 9 November 2014, but Mas and others went ahead with the vote, helped by more than 40,000 volunteers who opened schools and installed polling stations.

More than 80% of participants opted for independence, but only 2.3 million of Catalonia’s 5.4 million eligible voters took part.

The trial was held as relations between Madrid and Barcelona curdled rapidly and seven months before the pro-independence Catalan government plans to hold a binding referendum on splitting from Spain.

The renewed push has again been blocked by Spain’s constitutional court. It has warned Puigdemont and Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, that they had a duty to stop any move to ignore or dodge the suspension, or deal with the consequences.

Carme Forcadell tweeted her support of Mas.
Carme Forcadell tweeted her support of Mas. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

Forcadell, who faces charges of contempt of court and neglect of duty for allowing the parliament to vote on plans to secede from Spain last July, responded to the verdict by tweeting: “All my support to Mas, Ortega and Rigau in the wake of this unjust sentence. Democracy should be exercised, not banned.”

Sergi Sabrià, a spokesman for the leftwing separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, accused Madrid of using the case for political ends. He described the verdict as “disgraceful and anti-democratic” and said the secessionist movement would not be deterred.

“No matter how much they ban politicians for putting out ballot boxes or try to fabricate evidence from the sewers of the state, they won’t be able to stop this process,” he said. “We will make it to the end and we will put out the ballot boxes.”

The separatist movement has acquired huge momentum over recent years, but any vote would probably be very close. A poll at the end of December showed 46.8% of Catalans are against independence, compared with 45.3% in favour.

Campaigners for independence for the wealthy, north-eastern region argue that Catalonia has its own culture, language and political heritage and has long been putting more into the Spanish state than it gets out.

The conservative government of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has vehemently opposed any bid for sovereignty, pointing out that a unilateral bid for independence would infringe the constitution.

There has been talk in recent weeks that the Spanish government is considering invoking article 155 of the constitution, which would allow it to take drastic steps to prevent September’s referendum by suspending regional autonomy.

Such a move could see Madrid ordering the closure of schools in the region to stop them being used as polling stations and even taking control of the Catalan police.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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