BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - Catalan separatists chanting “Freedom for the political prisoners” and “Independence!” took part in largely peaceful rallies on Tuesday that failed to draw massive crowds at a time when the restive Spanish region has come to a crossroads.
The protesters were commemorating the second anniversary of an ill-fated independence referendum just ahead of the verdict, expected in the next two weeks, for 12 separatist leaders on trial for their role in that ballot and the short-lived independence declaration that followed.
The referendum, held on Oct. 1, 2017 despite being deemed illegal by Madrid, plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis in decades, which still dominates national politics.
“We want to continue the fight for a referendum,” said one of the protesters in Barcelona, Dolors Riba, 65, with a separatist flag on her back.
Separatists say their leaders on trial, nine of whom are jailed, are political prisoners. Spanish authorities say they are getting a fair, non-political trial.
Yellow balloons marked voting stations used in the 2017 referendum, which was held despite being deemed illegal by Madrid. “Let’s finish what we started,” read one attached note.
The separatist movement’s momentum has seemingly slowed in recent months as it finds itself divided over whether to take a hard line that could lead to another banned independence referendum, or more dialogue with Madrid.
But tensions have flared in recent days, ahead of the separatist leaders’ verdict.
Spain’s high court last week jailed seven Catalan activists, with prosecutors saying they had made explosives and were planning violent action around the time of the verdict - which would be a sharp change for a largely peaceful movement.
The regional parliament responded to the arrests by adopting a resolution backing civil disobedience.
Leaders of the separatist movement insisted on Tuesday they are non-violent.
“The road towards the Catalan republic is inevitable,” Pere Aragones, Catalonia’s deputy head of government, said in a ceremony in Barcelona. “We want to build it peacefully and for everybody.”
A group of demonstrators briefly blocked a highway near the Catalan city of Tarragona on Tuesday evening, a police spokesman said, adding that a few garbage containers and fences were toppled during some tense moments in Barcelona, while in the morning protesters threw eggs at police in the city of Girona.
But despite fears of major disruptions, the rallies were more peaceful than during the referendum’s first anniversary, when protesters tried to storm parliament, clashed with police and blocked train tracks and highways.
Turnout for the protests in Barcelona was about 18,000, according to TV3 television and La Vanguardia newspaper, citing police sources, around 10 times less than during the anniversary last year. Official estimates were not yet available.
In another sign of fatigue, demonstrators for the Catalan regional holiday last month, traditionally seen as a gauge of the strength of the movement, were also way down on previous years..
“People are frustrated. People will bypass politicians if they don’t get down to work,” a protester in Barcelona, Xavi, 44 said.
In 2017, Madrid responded to the declaration of independence by the wealthy region’s parliament by imposing direct rule on the region for months, sidelining regional authorities.
Acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Tuesday Madrid was ready to again apply direct rule in Catalonia if the regional government broke any laws.
He pointed to the refusal of separatist leaders to condemn the seven activists arrested last week. The leaders said Madrid was trying to paint separatists as a violent movement, a label they reject.
“We urge the Catalan independence movement not to play with fire, not to make the worst possible mistake, which is to look the other way if there are signs of violence, as we have unfortunately seen in recent weeks,” Sanchez said in an interview with broadcaster Cadena Ser.
Laura Borras, a lawmaker for secessionist Junts per Catalunya, said in comments to Reuters that it was the Spanish government that had “set fire to Catalan society” with its actions.
The seven activists arrested last week are alleged to be linked to the grassroots CDR, one of the organisers of some of Tuesday’s protests.
“We were born to defend a referendum. We grew to defend a republic. We are the ones who will make the enemy tremble. And we will win. Have no doubts,” the CDR said on Twitter.
Reporting by May Ponzo, Jordi Rubio, Sam Edwards and Joan Faus; Writing by Ashifa Kassam and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Tom Brown