Spain: government apologises for policing of Catalan referendum

Spain: government apologises for policing of Catalan referendum

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Protesters wave a Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flag during a demonstration

The Spanish government has apologised for the policing of Sunday’s independence referendum but said the region’s political leaders were to blame for going ahead with the vote.

The comments from Enric Millo, the government’s most senior representative in Catalonia, were the first apology from a Spanish government official over the violence. The Catalan government says hundreds of people were injured after Spanish police attempted to stop the vote by raiding polling stations, beating voters and firing rubber bullets at crowds.King Felipe of Spain did not mention the police’s behaviour when he addressed the country on Tuesday evening.

Millo said in an interview with Catalonia’s TV3: “When I saw those images – and knowing that people were hit [and] shoved … all I can do is apologise on behalf of the officers who intervened.”

He said, however, that the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and his government were to blame for Sunday’s events as they had insisted on going ahead with the poll.

The apology came as the Catalan government said it would defy the Spanish constitutional court by going ahead on Monday with a parliamentary debate on the referendum result. It could potentially make a unilateral declaration of independence, the region’s foreign minister said.

On Thursday the court upheld a challenge by Catalonia’s Socialist party – which opposes secession from Spain – ruling that allowing the Catalan parliament to meet would violate the rights of the party’s MPs.

The court said any session carried out in defiance of its ban would be “null”, and that the parliament’s leaders could face criminal action if they ignored the court order.

Catalonia’s foreign affairs minister, Raül Romeva, insisted the debate would go ahead regardless of the court’s decision.

“We will keep going,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday. “I think it’s important that we start to understand this is about politics; this is not about legality. There is nothing illegal about voting.”

Asked directly if the session would take place on Monday, he replied: “Parliament will discuss; parliament will meet. It will be a debate and this is important.”

Romeva rejected suggestions that a unilateral declaration of independence would exacerbate the situation. “The crisis is already on the table. We’ve had a crisis for a long time; we’ve been demanding negotiations for a long time; people have demonstrated peacefully for a long time simply demanding the right to be listened to; and we’ve been demanding the Spanish government do politics for a long time.”

It is not the first time the Catalan government has ignored the constitutional court’s rulings, not least its order to suspend the referendum itself.

Later on Friday, Puigdemont appeared to try to circumvent the constitutional court by asking to appear in parliament on Tuesday to “report on the current political situation”.

Meanwhile, Spain’s national court questioned two senior officers of the Catalan police force and the leaders of two pro-independence groups who have been placed under investigation for sedition.

The four – who include Josep Lluís Trapero, the chief of the Catalan police force, and Jordi Sànchez, the head of the Catalan National Assembly, the region’s largest pro-independence group – are being investigated in connection with the large demonstrations in Barcelona that followed police raids on Catalan government buildings a fortnight ago and the arrests of 14 Catalan officials.

The raids and arrests, carried out by Spanish Guardia Civil police on a judge’s orders, drew a furious response from protesters. Two Guardia Civil vehicles were vandalised and the Catalan police were accused of failing to intervene.

Trapero, who was praised for his handling of the August terrorist attacks in Catalonia, was questioned for about an hour. He walked out of court to applause from Basque and Catalan party representatives and some insults from bystanders.

Speaking before Thursday’s court decision, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said the situation would only escalate further if the Catalan government carried on the path of a unilateral declaration.

“Is there a solution? Yes, there is,” Rajoy told the Spanish news agency Efe. “And the best one would be a return to legality and the swiftest possible confirmation that there won’t be a unilateral independence declaration, because that way still greater harm could be avoided.”

The Madrid government has refused to rule out invoking article 155 of the constitution. The article, which has never been used, makes provision for the central government to take control of an autonomous region if it “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.

However, given the heightened tensions and large protests, the move could prove counterproductive. Puigdemont has said triggering the article would be the Spanish government’s “ultimate mistake”.

Despite the Spanish authorities’ attempts to stop the referendum, which the government and the constitutional court had declared illegal, 2.26 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters took part. The figures suggest the turnout was about 43%, as many Catalans who oppose independence boycotted the poll for fear of lending it legitimacy.

According to the Catalan government, 90% of participants voted for independence. However, a full count of the votes has been complicated by the fact that many ballot boxes were removed from polling stations by police.