Around 200,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday after a court ordered the detention of two Catalan independence leaders, throwing fuel on the tension surrounding Catalonia’s break from the Kingdom of Spain’s grip.
The Catalan government accused Madrid of taking “political prisoners” and is refusing to bow to the Spanish government’s demand that it renounce a symbolic declaration of independence, setting it on a political collision course with Madrid later this week.
Madrid has threatened to place Catalonia – which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy – under direct central rule if the regional government doesn’t quell its aspirations for independence by Thursday.
“Giving in forms no part of this government’s scenarios,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull emphasized. “On Thursday, we won’t give anything different than what we gave on Monday.”
Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades worsened on Monday night when Madrid’s High Court jailed the heads of Catalonia’s two main separatist groups pending an investigation for alleged sedition.
Catalan National Assembly leader Jordi Sanchez and Omnium chief Jordi Cuixart are accused by prosecutors of helping to orchestrate pro-independence protests that last month trapped national police inside a Barcelona building and destroyed their vehicles.
The move resulted in massive demonstrations where people held up lighted candles, whistled and shouted “freedom” and “out with the occupying forces.” The protests ended peacefully in the evening.
“There should not be political prisoners in a democratic country in the 21st century. This country is not democratic. I’m here to support democracy,” said Alicia Cabreriza, a 26-year-old computer programmer from Barcelona.
In Madrid, those in favor of remaining a part of Spain’s union draped their homes in the national flag, while Barcelona apartment buildings were covered with Catalan flags. Street protests of hundreds of thousands of people have been held on both sides of the divide, including in Catalonia.
“They’ve crossed a line,” said Eulalia Lopez, a 54-year-old office worker in Barcelona. She said she and her colleagues would come out onto the streets if Madrid went ahead and seized control back from the restive region.
European capitals and financial markets have looked on with mounting alarm since Oct. 1, when Catalan authorities held a referendum on independence in defiance of a Spanish court ban.