Europe

Catalonia crisis: Tempers fray as jail terms renew Spain row

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Media captionClashes broke out on Monday as protesters blocked road access to Barcelona's El Prat airport

The severe prison sentences issued by Spain's Supreme Court against Catalan independence leaders for sedition have revived the country's territorial crisis.

The highly anticipated verdict triggered an immediate backlash, with pro-independence Catalans demonstrating in towns and cities across the region, in some cases closing down roads and rail links.

Dozens of flights had to be cancelled as demonstrators clashed with police at Barcelona's El Prat airport.

A 22-year-old man reportedly lost an eye on Monday after being struck in the face by a rubber bullet fired by the police.

There was also television footage showing a woman waving a Spanish flag before a young man grabbed it from here and struck her, knocking her to the ground. "This is the moment a woman was attacked while trying to retrieve her Spanish flag," reads the tweet.

Such incidents highlight the fraying tempers on both sides.

With the Catalan region virtually split down the middle on the secession issue and a polarised national political landscape, there is little prospect of a solution in the short term.

Spain's Supreme Court found nine Catalan politicians and grassroots leaders guilty of sedition on Monday, giving them jail sentences that ranged from nine to 13 years. Three other politicians were fined and suspended from public office for disobedience.

The Spanish government had expressed the hope that the Supreme Court verdict would usher in a new phase in this crisis, in which a political solution could be reached.

But such optimism currently looks fanciful and although support for independence has dipped recently, according to Catalan government polls, it remains relatively high at 44%, according to a July study. That compares to a record high of 49% in December 2017.

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Image caption A new civic group called Tsunami Democràtic spearheaded Monday's airport protest which cancelled flights and led to police storming protesters
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Crowds thronged the airport inside and out

Opposition to the Supreme Court's handling of the independence case has long been seen as a common cause around which the independence movement could unite after suffering some severe divisions. Yet now the verdict is out, it is not entirely clear where the response to it is leading.

"Outrage at the verdicts is very broad and it's shared by everyone within the independence movement," says Francesc-Marc Álvaro, a columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper.

"But the independence movement does not have a new shared strategy in the wake of the verdict."

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Image caption Spanish police charged late on Monday at protesters organised by Tsunami Democràtic

The region's pro-independence president, Quim Torra, has encouraged Catalans to exercise civil disobedience. Yet his government is also responsible for the regional police who are charged with controlling demonstrations, putting him in an uncomfortable position.

Many believe that Mr Torra's hopes of forcing Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to the negotiating table, to discuss the holding of a formal independence referendum, are misplaced.

The prime minister faces substantial pressure from unionists in Madrid to take a firm stance on the Catalan issue. National politics is deeply polarised, particularly so with a general election approaching on 10 November.

Adding to the uncertainty is the status of a new, mysterious, civic movement called Tsunami Democràtic, which appeared to be behind some of Monday's more dramatic protest actions.

It also put its name to a video message recorded in English by Manchester City football club's Catalan coach, Pep Guardiola, in which he accused Spain of drifting "towards authoritarianism".

That seemed to underline Tsunami Democràtic's aim of bringing this crisis to international attention. However, an end to it is not yet in sight.

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