Catalonia referendum: Spain steps up raids to halt vote

Spain’s Guardia Civil police have detained 14 Catalan officials and raided regional government ministries involved in organising a banned independence vote.

Tensions were already high before Josep Maria Jové, number two in the Catalan vice-presidency, and others were held.

Thousands of Catalans took to the streets in protest and the regional leader complained of a power grab.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the state had been forced to act.

Catalonia’s separatist government is defying a Constitutional Court order to halt the planned 1 October vote, which has been condemned by the Madrid government as illegal.

People demonstrate outside the Catalan Vice-President and Economy office as police officers holds a searching operation inside on September 20, 2017 in BarcelonaImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionA sea of protesters filled the Gran Via and other streets as police searched the Catalan economy ministry

Wednesday’s operation targeting over 20 ministries and institutions was a dramatic intensification of Spain’s attempt to stop the vote taking place. At least six million ballot papers were found in a warehouse outside Barcelona, reports said.

And in a separate move Spain’s finance minister, Cristóbal Montoro, said the national government was now set to take control of a large part of Catalonia’s public finances.

After an emergency cabinet meeting Catalan President Carles Puigdemont accused the Madrid government of “de facto” suspending the region’s autonomy and imposing a state of emergency.

Why is Spain cracking down?

Eleven days ahead of the planned vote on 1 October, the national government has made its biggest move yet to stop it happening.

Spain did not stop an earlier vote taking place in November 2014, but this time the Catalan leadership plans a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote. Spain’s government has been backed by the Constitutional Court, which has suspended the referendum law passed by the Catalan parliament.

Police remove a protester outside Unipost office in Terrassa on 19 SeptImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionScuffles broke out on Tuesday when demonstrators in Terrassa tried to stop a raid targeting voting material

Mr Rajoy said the regional government had been warned that they were destroying Spain’s national sovereignty, “There’s no democratic state in the world that would accept what these people are planning,” he said. He urged the Catalan president to comply with the law and put his secessionist challenge into “reverse gear”.

Several ministries in Barcelona were raided on Wednesday, including the economy, foreign affairs, telecoms, social affairs and presidency buildings. Among those detained were officials from the economy ministry, run by Catalan Vice-President Oriol Junqueras, as well as figures from other departments.

Police were searching for computer equipment and any documentation linked to the planned vote. The day before, they seized some 45,000 envelopes with the Catalan government’s logo from a private delivery company in Terrassa, north-west of Barcelona.

On Friday, the Spanish finance minister gave Oriol Junqueras a deadline to call off the vote or see funding for essential services in Catalonia taken over by Madrid. A letter was sent to Mr Junqueras late on Tuesday reminding him the deadline had passed.

A risky escalation

By James Badcock, BBC News, Madrid

The spate of raids and arrests in Barcelona is a clear escalation by the Spanish state as it tries to deactivate the planned referendum.

Protesters with 'democracy' flags chant outside the Catalan economy ministryImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionChanting “We will vote”, protesters blocked the Gran Via in Barcelona outside the Catalan economy ministry

Previous raids have targeted sites suspected of holding electoral material. Arresting officials from an elected government risks further polarising Catalan society between those who want independence and those who do not.

Although the Catalan independence movement has so far been peaceful, raids on government premises carried out by a Spanish militarised police force, the Guardia Civil, create uncomfortable echoes of the Franco dictatorship.

Demonstrators are already taking to the streets to protect their “right to decide”. And there is a risk of clashes between pro-independence activists and police forces with orders to stop the vote.

How are Catalan leaders responding?

As the Catalan president condemned Spain’s “anti-democratic and totalitarian actions”, another Catalan leader called for peaceful resistance to protect the buildings as the regional government met in emergency session.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont on 20 SeptImage copyrightAFP
Image captionCatalan President Carles Puigdemont said the Spanish leadership had crossed a red line

“The time has come – let’s resist peacefully; let’s come out and defend our institutions,” the president of the Catalan National Assembly, Jordi Sánchez, tweeted.

He did not have to wait long. Protesters gathered outside the economy ministry as the police operation took place, chanting “We will vote” and surrounding the Guardia Civil cars stationed outside.

The centre of Barcelona soon became a sea of Catalan flags and the city’s renowned football club threw its weight behind the protests, condemning any actthat threatened freedom of speech and self-determination.

The Catalan vice-president accused Spanish police of attacking the region’s institutions and therefore its citizens too. “We will not allow it,” he said.

In Madrid, Catalan separatist MP Gabriel Rufián told the prime minister in parliament he should take his “dirty hands” off Catalonia’s institutions, Efe news agency reported.

Do Catalans want independence?

Some 7.5 million people live in Spain’s well-off north-eastern region and a majority are thought to be in favour of having a vote. However, one survey commissioned by the Catalan government in July suggested that 41% of voters backed independence while 49% were opposed.

Catalan nationalism has been stirred by Spain’s economic crisis. While Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, Catalans argue they pay more into the national budget than they get back. And a 2010 Constitutional Court ruling fuelled nationalist anger when it set limits on Catalan claims to nationhood.