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Spanish court sentences 9 Catalan separatist leaders over failed independence bid

Spain's Supreme Court on Monday sentenced nine separatist leaders from Catalonia to terms ranging from nine and 13 years each in prison for sedition over their role in a failed bid for independence in October 2017. It has prompted criticism and protests throughout the region.

Each leader will spend between 9 and 13 years in prison for sedition

A woman holds placards depicting pictures of jailed Catalan separatist leaders Jordi Turull and Carme Forcadell in Barcelona on Monday, after Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan leaders to prison terms ranging from nine to 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds for their roles in a failed 2017 independence bid. (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

Spain's Supreme Court on Monday sentenced nine separatist leaders from Catalonia to terms ranging from nine and 13 years each in prison for sedition over their role in a failed bid for independence in October 2017.

The three other defendants in the landmark ruling, which stemmed from the holding of a referendum that had been banned and a short-lived independence declaration, were found guilty only of disobedience and not sentenced to prison.

What happened on Oct. 1, 2017, was "not just a demonstration or a massive act of citizen protest," the Madrid court said in a ruling delivered in writing rather than in an open session.

"If that had been the case, there would have been no criminal sentencing. It was a tumultuous uprising encouraged by the accused, among many others," the court said Monday. 

All defendants were acquitted of the gravest charge, rebellion, but other leading separatists were quick to call the ruling an "attack on democracy."

"Today we are all condemned. This sentence is an attack on democracy and the rights of all citizens," said the current head of Catalonia's regional parliament, Roger Torrent.

The longest prison term, 13 years, went to the former deputy leader of the Catalan regional government, Oriol Junqueras.

All of those convicted were barred from holding public office.

In this May 20, 2019 file photo, Catalonian ERC party leader Oriol Junqueras, centre, leaves after collecting his credentials at the Spanish parliament in Madrid, Spain. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison on Monday, prompting protests throughout the country. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Following his conviction, Junqueras said the region's independence from Spain "is closer than ever," and the reason for his role in the secession attempt was "we Catalans do not have an alternative."

The court convicted Junqueras and eight other leaders on charges of sedition and four of them of misuse of public funds, the court ruling showed. 

The former head of Catalonia's regional government, Carles Puigdemont, said the prison sentences for the separatist leaders were an "atrocity." Later in the day, the court also issued an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont on charges of both sedition and misuse of public funds.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium in October 2017 when he was summoned to appear before court to answer questions about the secession push and the Oct. 1 independence referendum. Spain issued a first warrant that same year, but later withdrew it after a German court ruled Puigdemont couldn't be extradited to Spain for rebellion, one of the initial charges.  

Protesters injured during airport clashes

Health authorities said 37 protesters were injured during ongoing clashes with police at Barcelona's airport. Regional police said they arrested two protesters — one at Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport and another in the town of Mataro — for allegedly attacking officers.

Protesters threw empty fire extinguishers and other objects at police. The police force confirmed its officers used foam bullets and batons to drive back crowds at the airport.

Airport authorities said 108 flights have been cancelled.

On Monday, protesters blocked five regional roads across across the semi-autonomous region, officials at the Catalan road traffic agency said as people opposing the sentencing took to the streets.

"Today they have violated all their rights. It is horrible that Europe doesn't act," civil servant Deni Saball, 60, said while protesting in the street. "I don't want to be European. I don't want to be Spanish." 

Several streets in Barcelona were blocked by demonstrations, including parts of Diagonal avenue, which crosses the city, local police said. There were also protests in big Catalan municipalities including Girona and Lleida.

Protesters hold a Catalan pro-independence Estelada flag in Barcelona on Monday. (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

Train tracks were briefly blocked outside Girona, a separatist stronghold about 100 kilometres northeast of Barcelona, rail operator Rodalies said on Twitter.

Spain's caretaker prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, warned on Monday his caretaker government will be watching developments in Catalonia to respond "with firmness" and "proportionally" to any violations of the legal order. 

Police officers stand by a doorway as protesters sit down blocking access to El Prat airport in Barcelona on Monday. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

In a live television appearance reading from a statement, he said the sentences of the Catalan separatists must be carried out and "abiding by the sentence means its mandatory compliance." 

The Socialist leader, who is trying to remain in power in a Nov. 10 election, also said the sentence opened a "new era" in Catalonia that should leave aside "extremism" and foster "dialogue."

Spain caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pauses as he reads a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Paul White/The Associated Press)

After the ruling was published, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), a pro-independence grassroots movement, tweeted "it's time to rise up against the authoritarian fascism of the Spanish state and its accomplices. It is time for the #RevoltaPopular (popular revolt)."

Quim Torra, Catalan regional president, urged Spain to "end repression" and grant "amnesty to the convicted and fugitive separatists, while soccer club Barcelona criticized the ruling, saying "prison is not the solution.

The Catalan club said in a statement the resolution of the independence debate in Catalonia must come "exclusively from political dialogue." 

It called on "political leaders to lead a process of dialogue and negotiation," and pave the way for the prisoners' release. 

Barcelona is one of Catalonia's most cherished institutions. It has long had an ambiguous relationship with the independence movement, with Catalan independence flags a regular feature at home games. 

The government has said it is ready to take direct control of Catalonia, as it did in 2017, if secessionist leaders break the law.

The ruling is likely to colour next month's national election, Spain's fourth in four years, and influence the direction taken by the separatist movement.

An opinion poll in July showed 48.3 per cent of Catalans against secession and 44 per cent in favour.

With files from The Associated Press