180,000 join march on anniversary of Catalan independence vote

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Activists blocked railway lines, students skipped classes and supporters of Catalonia seceding from Spain marched in large numbers to mark the anniversary of a referendum that was part of a thwarted bid for independence last year.

The evening march in Barcelona drew what local police estimated was a crowd of 180,000 people. A spontaneous spin-off demonstration produced a tense face-off between police and lingering protesters, capping a day of noisy but largely non-violent demonstrations.

The anniversary of the event that sparked Spain’s gravest political crisis in decades was marked by a fractured Catalan independence movement amid delicate talks on the region’s future with the country’s centre-left Socialist government.

Pro-independence demonstrators in Barcelona
Pro-independence demonstrators in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

For many Catalans, the vote has become a symbol of their long fight for self-determination.

As part of the one-year observances across the region, activists blocked roads and other major transport routes while college and high school students boycotted classes and made emotional speeches at mass protests.

Thousands of students walked behind a street-wide banner that read: “Not forgetting, not forgiving.”

They shouted “Freedom for political prisoners”, a reference to the separatist leaders who have been in pre-trial custody on rebellion and other charges for nearly a year.

Members of the regional Catalan government returned to Sant Julia de Ramis, the northern town that has become a symbolic place for separatists because one year ago police stormed the local school to prevent people from voting.

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president at the time, had been scheduled to vote there but had to find an alternative polling station when anti-riot police broke the gates of the school to confiscate ballot boxes and used batons to disperse and injure voters refusing to leave.

The incidents were broadcast live and brought pressure on the Spanish central government, at the time in the hands of conservatives.

Separatists claimed a victory for independence in the vote despite its illegal nature, the police violence and a lack of oversight.

In a brief speech on Monday, Catalonia’s current president, Quim Torra, called on supporters gathered outside the school to remember the lessons of the referendum and to press ahead with efforts to secede from Spain.

He was hand-picked by Mr Puigdemont from Belgium, where the separatist leader fought off extradition and has been advocating for an independent Catalonia.

On Monday, he released a video on Twitter calling on Catalans to remain united in persevering with the goal of breaking away from Spain.

“Let us not stray from the only possible way to live in a full democracy: the (Catalan) Republic and its international recognition,” he said.

Mr Torra has asked the government of prime minister Pedro Sanchez to authorise a binding vote on secession, and also to release the nine separatist leaders who are in pre-trial detention on rebellion and other charges.

Dialogue between the regional and national administrations has so far delivered some economic deals for funding the region, but the talks are bogged down by internal discord among separatists on the best strategy for going forward and weak parliamentary support for Mr Sanchez’s minority government.

Government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said last year’s police violence was “a mistake” and it damaged the country’s reputation.

Polls and recent elections show that the region’s 7.5 million residents are roughly equally divided by the secession question.

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