Crackdown motivated more Catalans to become separatists: Student protesters

Catalan firemen join a pro-referendum demonstration called by students on September 28, 2017 in Barcelona. (Photo by AFP)
Catalan firemen join a pro-referendum demonstration called by students on September 28, 2017 in Barcelona. (Photo by AFP)

Students marching for independence of Spain’s Catalonia region say a crackdown by the central government in Madrid that has escalated ahead of a planned referendum in the region has heightened separatist sentiments among the people.

The students gathered outside a building at the University of Barcelona in the center of the Catalan capital on Thursday to defend the region’s right to hold an independence referendum.

The students, many draped in red and yellow Catalan independence flags, chanted “We will vote” and “Independence.”

They said many students changed their mind to support independence from Spain after they saw that the crackdown by Madrid had intensified in the run-up to the October 1 vote.

“The majority of young people are separatists, and if they weren’t, they have become separatists after seeing what Spain has done in recent weeks,” said Aina Gomez, a 16-year-old high school student, who said that just a handful of his classmates had shunned the Thursday protest.

A girl holds a symbolic ballot box during a pro-referendum demonstration called by students in Barcelona on September 28, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Spanish police have arrested key members of the Catalan government organizing the referendum over the past few days while electoral material, including millions of ballot papers, has been seized by authorities who insist the vote is illegal.

Spain has also warned that anyone contributing to the referendum in any form would be subject to criminal prosecution. Police were ordered on Tuesday to seal off places to be used as polling stations and guard them until Sunday, the referendum day.

Students, like many other supporters of the vote, have defied the crackdown, saying they would occupy schools and universities that could be used as polling stations. Police authorities in the region have warned that sealing off polling stations, as demanded by Madrid, would cause a “disruption of public order.”

“If such a large number of people as exists in Catalonia want to separate from the country, they have to be allowed to vote,” said another protester during the Thursday rally.

Polls by Catalonia’s regional government show that opponents of independence outnumber the supporters by a low margin. However, local authorities say Catalans would decide on the issue once and for all in the upcoming referendum.

Madrid says the constitution bars a regional administration to call such a vote and that it is solely a responsibility of the central government.

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