Catalans inundate Barcelona to demand leaders’ freedom


Hundreds of thousands of Catalans marched Saturday to demand the release of regional officials who were jailed for their push for independence from Spain, which has left the country mired in a political crisis.
The protest kicked off in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, at 1600 GMT and came a day after the region s parliament speaker — one of dozens of lawmakers sacked by Madrid last month — was released from jail after posting 150,000 euros ($175,000) bail.The demonstrators gathered on an avenue next to the region s parliament building waving Catalan independence flags and chanting “Freedom!” while some held up banners announcing: “SOS Democracy”.
Children in riding helmets climbed castells — the region s traditional human towers — as others held placards bearing caricatures of some jailed lawmakers.
Catalan police put the turnout Saturday at 750,000 people as crowds stretched for more than 15 blocks along the boulevard.
The Catalonia crisis has caused concern in the European Union as the bloc deals with Brexit and uncertainty over the fate of the region s 7.5 million people. More than 2,400 businesses have moved their legal headquarters elsewhere.
On Wednesday a general strike called by a pro-independence union caused travel chaos, blocking 60 roads and train lines including Spain s main highway link to France and the rest of Europe.
Since lawmakers in Catalonia — a wealthy region with its own language and distinct culture — declared independence on October 27 following a banned referendum, pro-separatist officials have come under huge pressure from Madrid.
The central government has dismissed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, his government and the parliament, suspended the region s autonomy and called for new elections there on December 21. Barcelona s popular mayor, just hours before she was due to attend the rally, railed against the actions of Puigdemont s government.
“They ve provoked tensions and carried out a unilateral independence declaration which the majority do not want,” Ada Colau told a meeting of her party members. “They ve tricked the population for their own interests.” Eight members of the axed Catalan cabinet are currently detained on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
A further six fired officials including parliament speaker Carme Forcadell were granted bail this week on similar charges by Spain s Supreme Court. Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium awaiting a hearing on possible extradition back to Spain after Madrid issued an EU-wide warrant. AFP

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