THE NEW YORK TIMES
By RAPHAEL MINDER
BARCELONA, Spain — The trial of a former leader of Catalonia charged with civil disobedience for organizing an independence vote in 2014 began on Monday and was met with another act of defiance from the region’s secessionist movement.
When the former leader, Artur Mas, entered a Barcelona courtroom Monday morning, an estimated 40,000 separatists protested outside the building, according to the police. Mr. Mas is on trial for holding the vote even though it was declared illegal by the Spanish courts.
The case comes as the secessionist drive in Catalonia enters another critical phase, with the separatist government pledging to hold a binding independence referendum in September, over the strenuous objections of the government in Madrid.
Mr. Mas is standing trial with two other politicians who helped organize the vote in 2014, in which those who cast their ballot opted overwhelmingly for independence, although less than half of the population took part. The prosecution is seeking to bar the three defendants from holding public office for 10 years. Mr. Mas faces two separate charges, of disobedience and breach of trust.
In his opening remarks on Monday, Mr. Mas told the court that he assumed full responsibility for the ballot. He presented himself as a politician torn at the time between fulfilling two duties: one to respect Spain’s courts and the other to answer “the clamor from the street.”
Between those two choices, Mr. Mas said, he felt obligated to give priority to Catalans voting for Catalonia’s future. “There was no intention to commit any crime, nor to disobey anybody,” Mr. Mas said.
Carles Puigdemont, who succeeded Mr. Mas as president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, criticized officials in Madrid for trying to punish Mr. Mas. The nonbinding vote was “a day of happiness and democratic strengthening,” he said, but it did not fundamentally change Catalonia’s relationship with the Spanish government.
Although Spain’s conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has promised to maintain the country’s unity, the recent prosecution of other separatist politicians has added to the tensions between politicians in Madrid and Barcelona. Secessionists have presented themselves as victims of Madrid’s refusal to uphold democratic values, like the right to vote.
Carme Forcadell, the speaker of Catalonia’s regional Parliament, who is also facing legal charges, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece last week that Mr. Rajoy’s government was “using a politicized court system to silence dissent and democratic debate.”
Separatist politicians face an uphill struggle, not just to hold an independence referendum, but also to convince their citizens that Catalonia stands to gain from breaking away from the rest of Spain.
Catalonia, home to 7.5 million people, accounts for almost a fifth of Spain’s economic output. Recent opinion polls have oscillated, but they have broadly suggested that Catalan society is split roughly evenly between backers and opponents of independence, even if a clear majority want to settle the debate with a vote.
On Monday, Rafael Catalá, the Spanish justice minister, said that the government would stop any such referendum this year.
“If somebody is determined to speak about what is not possible and is determined to act against what is possible, the law will function and we will guarantee that it is respected in the whole of Spain,” Mr. Catalá told reporters.
In regional elections in September 2015, voters gave separatist parties a majority of the parliamentary seats and 48 percent of the vote.
Mr. Mas was replaced as regional leader in January 2016 after a dispute among the separatist parties about his leadership and because of corruption cases centered on his party.
If the separatist groups are unable to overcome Madrid’s legal obstacles, they are expected to call new elections this year.