More than 300,000 people are estimated to have taken to the streets of Barcelona to call for the return of the 16 Catalan leaders who are in prison or have fled the country in the aftermath of last October’s unilateral independence referendum.
Sunday’s mass demonstration, which was called by the two main Catalan pro-independence groups and backed by the regional branches of Spain’s two biggest unions, took place under the slogan “For rights and freedoms, for democracy and cohesion, we want you home!”
Police put attendance at 315,000 while the organisers said 750,000 people had turned out to take part in the protest, with the city’s streets once again filled with people dressed in yellow clutching pro-independence estelada flags.
The former regional president, Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium at the end of October and is on bail in Germany, tweeted that the march was “a great civic and democratic demonstration”, adding: “We are European citizens who just want to live in peace, free and without fear.”
Elsa Artadi, a spokeswoman for Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia party, said the event put paid to suggestions that the independence movement was running out of steam.
“We’re once again showing all those who say that the movement is demobilising, or that people are tired, that things aren’t that way,” she said. “We’re here today because there are 16 people in prison or in exile for defending political ideas that represent 2 million people.”
Alex de Ferrer, a 50-year-old IT specialist, told Agence France Presse that he had decided to join the protest as jailing separatist leaders “only serves to manufacture separatists”.
While conceding that the arrests of prominent Catalan leaders on possible charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds had left the independence movement “decapitated”, he said the setback was only temporary.
The involvement of the Catalan branches of the Workers’ Commissions and General Workers’ Union was not universally endorsed as some members oppose the region’s secession.
But the regional secretary general of the latter defended the move. “The majority of Catalans, regardless of their political position, agree that pre-trial jail is not justified,” said Camil Ros. “What we as labour unions are asking for now is dialogue.”
The protest came almost six months after the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, responded to the illegal referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence by sacking Puigdemont’s government and taking direct controlof the region.
Rajoy also called elections in December, a move that backfired after the pro-independence bloc retained its parliamentary majority. Repeated attempts to form a new Catalan government have come to nothing as Puigdemont remains in self-imposed exile and two other presidential candidates – Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Turull – are on remand.
Despite the huge turnout and the talk of cohesion and coexistence, polls suggest Catalans remain deeply and almost evenly divided over the notion of seceding from Spain.
While the overwhelming majority of people in the region favour a legal referendum agreed between Madrid and Barcelona, a recent survey found that support for independence dropped from 48.7% last October to 40.8% in February this year.
An anti-independence rally held in Barcelona last November attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters. Police put attendance at 350,000; organisers said 930,000 people took part.