MADRID (Reuters) - A small knot of Catalan independence supporters applauded as the region’s police chief arrived at a Madrid court on Friday to face accusations of sedition — but he could draw a far bigger, and angrier, crowd back in Barcelona if ever convicted.
Josep Lluis Trapero, 51, a career policeman and law graduate, is a hero to the region’s secessionists after his force took a much less aggressive stance than national police in enforcing a ban on last Sunday’s independence referendum.
His Catalan force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, largely stood off as Madrid’s Civil Guard led a violent crackdown, baton-charging and firing rubber bullets at voters and smashing into voting stations and seizing ballot boxes.
Despite the crackdown, the Catalan government says 2.3 million people managed to vote and that around 90 percent wanted independence, a result that has tipped Spain into its biggest political crisis since becoming a democracy four decades ago.
However, it was a separate incident that unfolded last month, in the run-up to the vote, that led Spain’s High Court to summon Trapero to a closed-door session and answer accusations of sedition, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Trapero, who does not yet face any charges, is accused of failing to order Mossos to rescue Civil Guard police who were trapped inside a Catalan government building in Barcelona by tens of thousands of pro-independence protesters.
Protesters ringed the building after they learnt the Civil Guard was raiding a Catalan ministry as part of a drive to arrest referendum organisers, seize ballot papers and prevent the vote going ahead. The Civil Guard police were trapped inside until early the next morning when the crowd finally dispersed.
Trapero, also widely respected in Catalonia for his role in hunting down Islamists accused of staging the Barcelona attacks in August, made no comment outside Friday’s hearing. One supporter held up a Catalan flag and a plastic ballot box.
Later, the Mossos issued a statement saying its boss had told the court that the Catalan force had not been immediately notified of the Civil Guard’s predicament on Sept. 20, implying that a large crowd had already gathered by that time.
“The Mossos were not notified sufficiently in advance ... and this forced them to adjust to the circumstances accordingly. The first they heard of the Spanish police’s intended action was through the media,” the statement said.
“Appropriate measures were taken ... In his opinion, he did not commit any crime of sedition or participated or collaborated in any such crime or any other.”
Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Richard Balmforth