Spain court annuls Catalan secession declaration

Spain's constitutional court has ruled illegal the ousted Catalan parliament's recent vote to declare the region independent from Spain.

Ruling came as pro-independence protesters blocked roads, stopped commuter trains

Demonstrators holding banners that read in Catalan: 'Freedom for the Political Prisoners' at a protest in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday. A workers' union has called for a general strike Wednesday in Catalonia. (Santi Palacios/Associated Press)

Spain's constitutional Court has ruled illegal the ousted Catalan parliament's recent vote to declare the region independent from Spain.

The ruling Wednesday came as pro-independence protesters blocked roads and stopped commuter trains in the northeastern region as part of a strike to protest the jailing of ousted Catalan government officials and secessionist activists before and after the Oct. 27 declaration.

The court had initially suspended implementation of the secession declaration last month while it studied its legality following a challenge by the Spanish government.

The secession vote, which was boycotted by most opposition lawmakers and held despite previous court rulings, passed by 70 votes to 10 in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

In response, Spain fired the Catalan government, dissolved the parliament and called a new regional election for next month.

Highways, rail lines blocked

Many of the blockades Wednesday were on roads leading to major Catalan cities, including the regional capital Barcelona, and major highways, the Catalan Transit Service said. Disruptions affected more than 60 sections of road and highway throughout the morning, it said.

A demonstrator carries an independence flag as he walks to block a highway during a general strike in Borrassa, Spain, Wednesday. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

National railway operator Renfe said services were halted on dozens of local lines as protesters blocked railway lines. Several national high-speed lines were also affected. In northern Girona, several protesters pushed past police controls to enter the city's main railway station.

Intersindical CSC, a platform of pro-independence workers' unions, had called the strike for labour issues. But separatist parties and civil society groups asked workers to join the stoppage to protest the Spanish government's moves against the Catalan bid for independence.

The strike wasn't backed by Spain's two main unions and wasn't reported to be having any major effect on industry or in the region's prized tourism sector.

People rest in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona and next to a huge Catalan independence flag, in Barcelona Wednesday. The regional government was sacked by Madrid and many of its members jailed in a rebellion probe after pushing ahead with secession from Spain. (Santi Palacios/Associated Press)

At mid-day, several thousand pro-independence protesters packed a central square in Barcelona, waving separatist flags and chanting "Freedom" for the 10 people in custody in a judicial probe into rebellion and sedition in the days before and after Catalonia's parliament ignored Spanish court rulings and declared independence Oct. 27.

Agusti Alcoberro, the vice-president of the grassroots Catalan national assembly told the crowd the arrests were "an attack on democracy and a humiliation" of Catalan people.

Election next month

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Wednesday said the upcoming elections should open "a new political era" in the region with the return to normality and respect for Spain's laws.

Eight members of the dismissed Catalan cabinet and two activists were sent to jail as a Spanish court studies possible charges of rebellion and sedition against them.

Former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and four of his aides have fled to Brussels, where they are fighting Spanish arrest and extradition orders.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, left, and Belgium's Minister for the Interior Jan Jambon address the media in this June 21 file photo. The flight of the ousted Catalan president to Brussels is sowing divisions within the Belgian government. (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

Their presence in the European capital is sowing divisions within the Belgian government. Some Belgian lawmakers have criticized Prime Minister Charles Michel for not taking tougher action against Puigdemont, and others complain that the Catalan leader's presence was inflaming Flemish separatists in Belgium.

Speaking to Belgian lawmakers on Wednesday, Michel refused to comment on Puigdemont's political actions, saying that his case must be handled by judicial authorities alone.

"Mr. Puigdemont is a European citizen who must be held accountable for his actions just like any other European citizens — with rights and obligations but no privileges," he said.

Michel also stressed that the Spanish government remains his partner.

Catalonia, with 7.5 million people, represents a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product and polls show its people roughly evenly divided over independence. Puigdemont claimed a banned Oct. 1 secession referendum gave it a mandate to declare independence.