Protesters hold a Catalan pro-independence flag in Barcelona October 14 2019. Picture: JOSEP LAGO / AFP
Protesters hold a Catalan pro-independence flag in Barcelona October 14 2019. Picture: JOSEP LAGO / AFP

Barcelona — Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to heavy jail terms on Monday over the failed 2017 independence bid, bringing thousands of angry protesters on to the streets of Barcelona and blocked access to its airport.

The long-awaited ruling capped weeks of rising tension, and puts the Catalan question at the heart of the political debate less than a month before Spain heads into its fourth general election in as many years.

As the news broke, demonstrators flooded the streets of Barcelona before marching towards El Prat, Spain’s second busiest airport, where they briefly choked-off road and rail access.

At the entrance to the airport, police charged at protesters trying to get inside. About 20 flights had been cancelled.

‘An outrage’

The 12 defendants were put on trial in February for their role in the banned October 1 2017 referendum and the short-lived independence declaration that followed it.

The harshest sentence of 13 years was handed to former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras who served as the main defendant in absence of Carles Puigdemont, the region’s leader who fled Spain to avoid prosecution.

In a tweet from Brussels, Puigdemont denounced the sentences as an “outrage”.

“100 years in all. An outrage. Now more than ever, by your side and those of your families. It is time to react as never before,” he wrote.

And in a letter released on Monday, Junqueras said the story was far from over.

“Nothing ends today, you neither win nor convince,” he wrote in remarks directed at Spain's central government. “We will come back even stronger... and win.”

Spain's government has expressed hope the trial’s end would allow it to move on from the crisis in the wealthy northeastern region, where support for independence has gained momentum over the past decade.

“Following the Supreme Court decision we need to turn the page  through dialogue,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, speaking in English.

But shortly afterwards, a judge issued a new international arrest warrant for Puigdemont, a clear indication Spain would not rest until he and five others who fled abroad had been tried for their role in the crisis.

The separatist movement is hoping the guilty verdicts will unite their divided ranks and bring supporters onto the streets.

“It is time to rise up against the authoritarian fascism of the Spanish state and its accomplices,” tweeted the radical CDR as thousands heeded the call to protest.

Many said they had taken the day off to protest a sentence they knew would be harsh.

Evening demonstrations

Huge crowds also blocked Gran Via and halted rail traffic while hundreds of people stormed the rail tracks, halting four suburban lines.

The Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, the region’s two biggest grassroots pro-independence groups behind some of the biggest separatist protests in recent years, have also called an evening rally.

Barcelona Football Club also weighed in, tweeting: “Prison is not the solution. The resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

In the coming days, demonstrators will march from five towns towards Barcelona where they will congregate on Friday, when a general strike has been called.