Defiant separatist leaders reiterate call for Catalan independence ahead of march
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Catalonia's separatist leaders said independence from Spain was still their goal and another unauthorized referendum remained an option as supporters gathered on Wednesday for an annual march that has come to exemplify Catalan nationalism.
The independence drive has overshadowed Spanish politics for years and is now at a defining moment at a time when national politics themselves are in turmoil.
Massive annual marches have taken place on the region's commemorative day on Sept. 11 - known as the "Diada" - since 2012. The turnout and the tone of this year's event will act as a gauge on the separatist movement ahead of a court ruling linked to a short-lived unilateral declaration of independence in 2017.
At the same time, 12 Catalan leaders - nine of them jailed - are awaiting a verdict in their trial for rebellion, sedition and misappropriation of public funds over the independence referendum and the botched declaration that followed it.
"What the state intends with this sentence is to behead a peaceful movement and, as it cannot detain two million citizens, it locks us up," said Oriol Junqueras, 50, the jailed leader of the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party.
Prosecutors are seeking sentences ranging from 7 to 25 years, the latter only for Junqueras.
Asked if he would rule out acting unilaterally again on a referendum, Junqueras, answering questions from Reuters, said: "We cannot discard any option that is democratic and peaceful".
Another jailed separatist leader, Jordi Cuixart, said on Twitter: "We will never give up on being free."
"We'll do it again," he said, using has become a separatist catchphrase referring to the 2017 referendum and independence declaration.
However, there are growing divisions among separatists on what the next steps should be.
One way or the other, the Supreme Court ruling, expected in the first half of October, is likely to mark a defining moment for a movement that triggered Spain's biggest political crisis in decades in 2017 and still influences its national politics.
Early on Wednesday close to 450,000 people were registered to take part in the Barcelona demonstration, about 10,000 people below last year's, said Assemblea Nacional Catalana, the grassroots organization behind the protest.
Spanish and Catalan politicians on Wednesday showed their different expectations for the "Diada", the anniversary of the fall of Barcelona to Spanish forces in 1714.
Spain's acting Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez said that he hoped that one day, the "Diada" would not be a celebration of "only a part of Catalans", referring to separatists.
But Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan head of government who fled to Belgium after the failed separatist bid, said: "Today we will show again to the world that we persist despite repression, that we have the right to live in peace and freedom, and that no one can decide for us our future," he tweeted.
In 2017, Catalan leaders defied a judicial ban by carrying out the secessionist vote. The confrontation saw police wielding batons at crowds seeking to vote and prompted the then-conservative government to impose direct rule from Madrid on the region.
A poll published in July by a public Catalan institute showed support for an independent Catalonia at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3% of people against and 44% in favor.
(Reporting by Joan Faus, Ingrid Melander, Jose Elias Rodriguez and Belen Carreño, Editing by Ingrid Melander and Angus MacSwan)
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