The former head of Spain's Catalonia region was barred from public office for two years yesterday for staging an informal referendum on independence, after a trial that has stoked tensions between separatist leaders and the central government.
Artur Mas - who was regional governor in 2014 when pro-independence campaigners held a symbolic referendum in breach of a legal order - was found guilty of contempt of court, Catalonia's Superior Court of Justice said in a ruling.
The case comes as separatist political parties in Catalonia, a wealthy region with its own language and distinct culture, are pushing to hold another vote on breaking away from Spain in September.
Spain's center-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly ruled out such a scenario, however, saying any regional vote on secession would be illegal. Spain's Constitutional Court has blocked such moves in the past.
Spain's Justice Minister Rafael Catalá had dismissed the separatist referendum, calling it "a day of political propaganda organized by pro-independence forces and devoid of any kind of democratic validity."
Mas stepped down as Regional President in January 2016 to ensure that his separatist Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition could govern Catalonia with the support of the far-left Popular Unit Candidacy. Carles Puigdemont, his successor, has vowed to push ahead with independence for the Spanish region but there has been no serious talk of a second referendum.
Even though the number of people calling for full independence of Catalonia is sizeable, the number of Catalans wishing to not split off is equally sizeable, if not slightly higher.
At the end of last December a poll was held and it showed that 46.8 percent of the respondents in the region are against separation while 45.3 percent support it.
The current Catalan government has been through a recent wave of arrests by the Spanish police as part of a wider investigation into the matter. Last Decmber, Spanish police arrested five members of Catalan anti-capitalist party CUP for allegedly burning photos of King Felipe VI after refusing to appear before a judge investigating them.
The region of 7.6 million has long been enjoying prosperity and well-being in Spain's northeast with its own language and culture, compared to the Madrid government which is suffering from economic challenges including high unemployment rates and low average income. The economic crisis that hit Spain in 2008 has caused increasing tensions between the two parties, leading to a greater surge in support for separation. The Catalan government blamed the central government for much of Spain's debt crisis.
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