September 26, 2019 / 11:50 AM / a month ago

Seven Catalan activists sent to jail amid tension over independence drive

MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish judge sent seven Catalan activists to jail on Thursday over suspicions that they were planning violent actions in favour of their region’s independence, triggering tensions in the regional parliament and with authorities in Madrid.

Catalan separatism has posed a major challenge for Spain for years and triggered the country’s biggest political crisis in decades in 2017 when the region briefly declared independence.

But it has so far been a peaceful movement based on protests and any use of explosives or violent attacks by supporters of Catalan secession would mark a sharp change in tactics.

The seven were arrested on Monday as part of a probe the judge in Spain’s high court said covered alleged participation in a terrorism group and plans to commit violent acts.

Prosecutors allege they were planning violent acts in the coming weeks, around the Oct. 1 anniversary of the independence referendum or the verdict in the trial of 12 separatist leaders involved in that referendum, expected by mid-October.

The judge considered there are indications the seven arrested on Monday “belong to an ... organisation that intends to establish the Catalan republic by any means, including violent ones”, the court said.

It was not immediately possible to contact any of them or any lawyers representing them.

The judge decided to send them to preventive custody without bail on suspicion of “belonging to a terrorist organisation, making and owning explosives and conspiring to cause criminal damage,” it said, adding that the judge had considered jailing them necessary considering the gravity of the charges and the risk that they could destroy evidence.

Two of the seven have told investigators they were making and testing explosives, a source linked to the investigation said on Thursday. The two told investigators they bought chemical components to make explosives and carried out tests in a quarry, the source said.

Investigators have a video showing some of the activists carrying out tests of the explosives, the source said.

Reuters has not seen the video.

Some pro-independence Catalan politicians have reacted angrily to the arrests, and separatist lawmakers on Thursday interrupted a debate in the regional parliament in protest and walked out shouting “freedom”.

The regional assembly then passed non-binding resolutions saying that the Guardia Civil should leave Catalonia and that the separatist leaders jailed over the 2017 referendum should be granted amnesty if the Supreme Court judges them guilty next month.

The proposed made by the pro-independence party CUP defended “the legitimacy of civil and institutional disobedience.”

The Spanish government of acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez reacted by saying it was studying the Catalan Parliament resolutions and might take legal action against them.

Reporting by Ashifa Kassam, Paola Luelmo, Emma Pinedo and Elena Rodriguez, Andrei Khalip; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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