Spain jails Catalan leaders, sparking angry protests in Barcelona

BARCELONA, Spain (UPDATED) – Spain's Supreme Court sentenced 9 Catalan separatist leaders to heavy jail terms Monday, October 14, over the failed 2017 independence bid, bringing thousands of angry protesters onto the streets of Barcelona and blocked access to its airport.

The long-awaited ruling capped weeks of rising tension, and puts the Catalan question at the heart of the political debate less than a month before Spain heads into its fourth general election in as many years.

As the news broke, demonstrators flooded the streets of Barcelona before marching towards El Prat, Spain's second busiest airport, where they briefly choked-off road and rail access, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent said.

At the entrance to the airport, police charged at protesters trying to get inside, an AFP correspondent said, while the AENA airport authority said some 20 flights had been cancelled.

Outside, traffic was at a complete standstill up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the airport, with many travelers with suitcases getting out and walking as a police helicopter flew overhead.

Since the early hours, police have been braced for what activists pledged would be a mass response of civil disobedience.

"I feel very affected by the sentence even though I expected it. I feel fury and a sense of powerlessness," said Joan Guich, a 19-year-old maths student who was protesting on Gran Via.

"They have been convicted for an ideology which I agree with."

'An outrage'

The 12 defendants were put on trial in February for their role in the banned October 1, 2017 referendum and the short-lived independence declaration that followed it.

The harshest sentence of 13 years was handed to former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras who served as the main defendant in absence of Carles Puigdemont, the region's leader who fled Spain to avoid prosecution.

In a tweet from Brussels, Puigdemont denounced the sentences as an "outrage."

"100 years in all. An outrage. Now more than ever, by your side and those of your families. It is time to react as never before," he wrote.

And in a letter released on Monday, Junqueras said the story was far from over.

"Nothing ends today, you neither win nor convince," he wrote in remarks directed at Spain's central government.

"We will come back even stronger...and win."

Spain's government has expressed hope the trial's end would allow it to move on from the crisis in the wealthy northeastern region, where support for independence has gained momentum over the past decade.

"Following the Supreme Court decision we need to turn the page...through dialogue," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, speaking in English.

But shortly afterwards, a judge issued a new international arrest warrant for Puigdemont, a clear indication Spain would not rest until he and 5 others who fled abroad had been tried for their role in the crisis.

'These are good people'

The separatist movement is hoping the guilty verdicts will unite their divided ranks and bring supporters onto the streets.

"It is time to rise up against the authoritarian fascism of the Spanish state and its accomplices," tweeted the radical CDR as thousands heeded the call to protest.

Many said they'd taken the day off to protest a sentence they knew would be harsh.

"I'm not surprised but I still feel really outraged. These are good, peaceful, honest people," said Carles Navarro, a 49-year-old IT consultant.

"We have always looked for a peaceful way (to express our demands) but nobody listens. Now we're forced to resort to civil disobedience."

Evening demonstrations

"Today is going to be historic, you can feel it in the atmosphere. Serious things are happening," said Oscar Quiles, a 47-year-old properly entrepreneur demonstrating in Plaza Catalunya.

Huge crowds also blocked Gran Via and halted rail traffic while hundreds of people stormed the rail tracks, halting 4 suburban lines.

The Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, the region's two biggest grassroots pro-independence groups behind some of the biggest separatist protests in recent years, have also called an evening rally.

Barcelona Football Club also weighed in, tweeting: "Prison is not the solution.

"The resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue."

Junqueras' leftwing ERC party, which advocates dialogue with Spain, has said no negotiations would be possible without an "amnesty" for "political prisoners and those in exile."

In the coming days, demonstrators will march from 5 towns towards Barcelona where they will congregate on Friday, October 18, when a general strike has been called. – Rappler.com