By Joan Faus and Ingrid Melander
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Catalan separatists waving pro-independence flags and chanting “Independence now!” gathered in the regional capital Barcelona on Wednesday to call for a break from Spain and the release of their jailed leaders.
The annual pro-independence rally comes at a defining moment, with regional and national politics in turmoil and the much-awaited court verdict on a botched bid for independence expected early next month.
Despite anger in the crowd over the lack of unity among separatist parties on what strategy to adopt towards Madrid, the peaceful rally in central Barcelona demonstrated that Catalan separatism remains a major challenge for Spain.
Many protesters brandished signs reading “We will do it again”, a separatist catchphrase referring to a banned referendum and short-lived independence declaration that grabbed worldwide attention two years ago.
“We’re sending a clear message: today our objective is independence,” regional leader Quim Torra said.
However, Torra was speaking not at the rally itself but on the sidelines after organisers told bickering politicians they were not welcome on the main stage, where activists calling for unity drew cheers from the crowd.
The centre-right Junts per Catalunya of former regional leader Carles Puigdemont has urged a hard line since the failed 2017 independence bid, while the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) is more open to dialogue with Madrid.
“My objective is to reach independence for Catalonia. I know it’s difficult but I can’t give up,” 55-year old Teresa Armengol said when asked why she was taking part in the rally, known as the “Diada,” which marks the anniversary of the fall of Barcelona to Spanish forces in 1714.
But Armengol said she was upset with the divisions between separatist parties. “It’s really not helping. I hope they reach an agreement in the end … It seems the party is more important to them than the country (Catalonia).”
Initial data from local police put the turnout at 600,000, lower than their estimate for the rally in recent years.
Many protesters expressed support for the 12 separatist leaders – nine of whom are in jail – awaiting the verdict for their role in the banned referendum and short-lived unilateral declaration of independence in 2017.
“We’re very, very angry because nine of our politicians are in jail for letting us vote,” said 66-year old Montserrat Balaguer Selga, a retired nurse.
In 2017, Catalan leaders defied a judicial ban by carrying out the secessionist vote.
That confrontation saw police wielding batons at crowds seeking to vote and prompted the then-conservative government to temporarily impose direct rule from Madrid on the region.
Prosecutors are seeking sentences ranging from 7 to 25 years, the latter only for Oriol Junqueras, 50, jailed leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. They face charges of rebellion, sedition and misappropriation of public funds.
“What the state intends with this sentence is to behead a peaceful movement and, as it cannot detain two million citizens, it locks us up,” Junqueras told Reuters in written answers from jail.
Asked if he would rule out acting unilaterally again on a referendum, Junqueras, said: “We cannot discard any option that is democratic and peaceful.”
The Supreme Court ruling is likely to mark a defining moment for a movement that still influences national politics.
Spain’s acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he hoped that one day, the “Diada” would not be a celebration of “only a part of Catalans”, referring to the separatists.
A poll published in July by a public Catalan institute showed support for an independent Catalonia at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3% of people against and 44% in favour.
(Additional reporting by Jose Elias Rodriguez, Belen Carreño, Paoloa Luelmo, Sam Edwards; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Dan Grebler and Gareth Jones)