Protests continue at Spanish court over secession arrests

The Spain Prime Minister warned "greater harm" to officials if they don't call off the independence referendum bid

People shout slogans during a protest in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Some thousands have gathered at the gates of Catalonia's judiciary body in Barcelona to demand the release of a dozen officials arrested in connection with a vote on independence that Spanish central authorities are challenging as illegal. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Thousands of protesters stood firm outside a Spanish court in Barcelona after night fell Thursday, continuing to shout demands for the release of a dozen regional officials arrested in connection with a planned vote on Catalan independence.

Spanish authorities maintain the referendum scheduled for Oct. 1 is illegal and are challenging its constitutionality. But Catalan pro-independence groups also are digging in their heels as they fight for what they say is their right to vote.

The demonstrators who spent the day outside the Catalan Superior Court of Justice, a branch of the Spain’s national legal system, answered a call by pro-independence civic groups to stage long-term street protests against the surprise crackdown by police the previous day.

As the sun set, a large crowd sang, waved pro-independence flags and held banners proclaiming “Democracia!” (Democracy!) Unlike the previous night, when there were scuffles with police and patrol cars were vandalized, the mood remained festive.

The Catalonia region’s president, Carles Puigdemont, insisted in a video message late Thursday that the referendum would go ahead despite the legal obstacles and police action.

“These are not easy days, for sure, but we feel strong,” Puigdemont said. “While Spain acts like a regime where the authority of power grows inversely to its moral strength, we feel increasingly supported by the Catalan people’s greatest asset: its people.”

With tension mounting as Oct. 1 approaches, Spanish authorities contracted three ships usually used as ferries and brought them to northeastern Spain to provide accommodation for the additional security forces being deployed in the region. Authorities have not disclosed how many officers will be on duty.

“Our motto is that we are not afraid,” said Malena Palau, a 21 year-old student participating in Thursday’s gathering. “We want to vote because we have the right to decide, regardless of what we vote.”

The protesters’ response had begun Wednesday as news of the police raids on Catalan government offices and the arrests spread through social media.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose opposition to the referendum has the support of the main opposition Socialist party, has warned Catalan leaders of “greater harm” if they don’t call off the referendum bid.

Stepping up the pressure, Spain’s Constitutional Court said Thursday it will begin fining 22 electoral board members appointed to oversee Catalonia’s planned independence referendum between 6,000 ($7,200) and 12,000 euros ($14,400) a day as long as they fail to comply with a court order suspending the ballot. The fines will begin Saturday, a court statement said.

At the same time, and apparently offering an olive branch, Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos held out the possibility of increased funding for Catalonia — one of the main demands by disgruntled Catalans, who say their wealthy region hands too much to the central government. De Guindos said in an interview with the Financial Times published Thursday that “once independence plans are dropped, we can talk.”

Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain’s 1.1-trillion-euro ($1.32 trillion) economy and enjoys wide self-government. The region has about 5.5 million eligible voters. Polls consistently show the region’s inhabitants favor holding a referendum but are roughly evenly divided over independence from Spain.

___

AP reporters Ciaran Giles and Aritz Parra contributed to this report from Madrid.