Jailed Catalans urge peaceful protest for rare Spain PM visit

FILE PHOTO: Protestors wave Catalan separatist flags following a demonstration on the first anniversary of Catalonia's banned October 1, 2017 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2018. REUTERS/Enrique Calvo/File Photo

Nine jailed Catalan separatists jailed over their region’s push for independence called on Thursday for massive but peaceful protests ahead of a first visit by Spain’s cabinet during the crisis.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is to chair the weekly meeting in the Catalan capital Barcelona on Friday as part of his drive to resolve the conflict with the northeastern region where separatists reject the authority of Madrid central government.

Leaders of Catalonia, which has 7.5 million people and accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s economy, held a secession ballot last year and declared independence, prompting Madrid to take control and police to arrest local leaders.

Spain’s constitution prohibits regions from breaking away and the independence drive, backed by around half of Catalans, has caused the worst political crisis in decades.

The signatories of the letter are all in jail awaiting trial for rebellion and misappropriation of funds.

Four of them – Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Jordi Sanchez and Joaquim Forn – have been on hunger strike since the start of December to protest against the legal process.

“They will want to provoke us, they will be angry, they would like us to be violent, and they will not succeed,” the nine prisoners said in a letter released by their political parties.

“Our strength also lies in maintaining, always and everywhere, a civic and peaceful attitude.”

Hundreds of national police will be deployed to guard the cabinet meeting amid fears extreme elements of the independence movement could stir violence around rallies.

During last year’s independence vote, Spanish police attempted to shut down impromptu voting stations, provoking international outcry with the use of batons and rubber bullets in melees that injured dozens.

The prime minister is expected to meet pro-independence regional leader Quim Torra during the visit, though no format for the encounter had been agreed by Thursday morning.

While Madrid has said the meeting would be brief and informal, Barcelona views it as an official meeting to discuss political discrepancies and the prisoners.

Friday’s planned demonstrations would be the latest in many protests held by sometimes hundreds of thousands.

There was no immediate response from Madrid to the letter.