Catalan leader due in court over independence vote
Catalonia's leader Artur Mas goes to court on Thursday charged with breaking the law by organising a vote on whether his region should be independent from Spain.
Mas's supporters have branded the case against him politically motivated and accuse Spanish authorities of going after him to disrupt his drive for the rich northeastern region to secede.
The Catalan independence movement has raised political tensions in Spain as it recovers from several years of recession and prepares for general elections on December 20.
The Spanish government says holding a vote on independence is against the constitution since all Spanish people have the right to decide on matters of sovereignty.
Prosecutors accuse Mas of civil disobedience and misuse of public funds in organising the vote on November 9, 2014, in defiance of an injunction by Spain's Constitutional Court.
Mas himself called the ballot "a great act of democratic rebellion".
He will be questioned by regional high court judges from 0800 GMT in Barcelona.
The Spanish government went to court to block his plan for a full referendum so Mas instead held last November's vote as a non-binding symbolic ballot.
Some 2.3 million of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants took part and nearly 1.9 million of them voted in favour of independence.
- Demos outside court -
The hearing coincides with a sensitive date in Catalan history: Thursday is the 75th anniversary of the execution of Catalan nationalist leader Lluis Companys by firing squad under the Franco dictatorship.
Before his hearing, Mas will lay flowers at a commemoration of the death of Companys, who in 1934 had declared a short-lived Catalan State.
Mas's supporters bitterly criticised the choice of date for the hearing.
His two co-defendants, regional education minister Irene Rigau and the former deputy leader of the regional government Joana Ortega, both denied the charges against them at hearings on Tuesday.
"It is not good to criminalise a peaceful and democratic political act," Ortega said.
They turned up to court accompanied by fellow members of the regional government and other supporters. Officials hinted that a similar show of support would be made for Mas on Thursday.
That could further raise tensions after the courts service complained about pro-independence demonstrations near the court, branding them an "attack on judicial independence".
Catalans' long-standing demands for greater autonomy have intensified over recent years as Madrid has resisted their bids for reform, and have surged in the recent economic crisis.
Deepening the conflict with Madrid, Mas teamed up with other separatists in a joint list in the September 27 Catalan regional election, making it a de facto vote on secession.
The alliance won enough seats to control the Catalan parliament if it teams up with the far-left separatist group CUP.
Mas's alliance had vowed to declare independence for Catalonia by 2017 if it won, but it must first reach an agreement with the CUP.
© 2015 AFP