'Freedom for political prisoners,' Catalan separatists chant on election eve

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Waving separatist flags and chanting “freedom for political prisoners” thousands of supporters of Catalan independence gathered in Barcelona for concerts and rallies on Saturday, a day before Spain heads to the polls for a general election.

Organized by secretive Catalan protest group Democratic Tsunami, the protests aim to force Spaniards to reflect on the prison sentences handed out last month to nine separatist leaders who spearheaded a failed independence bid in 2017, organizers said.

The election campaign has been dominated by the Catalonia separatist issue after weeks of sometimes violent protests that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Catalan leaders.

Attending the rally, Jovita Mezquita, 69, praised Democratic Tsunami’s initiatives, including its first protest, which disrupted Barcelona’s airport in mid-October.

“We have to be imaginative,” she said. “We have to do things that have impact in the world,” she added, arguing that separatists were not taken into account in the rest of Spain.

But away from the protests, some Barcelona residents were skeptical that things could change for the region, where separatism is a highly divisive issue.

“I see (it as) very complicated for the situation in Catalonia to be resolved, because at the national level, that is to say at the Spanish level, I do not see that there is a great desire to do it,” said Maria Rodriguez, a 33-year old actress.

Democratic Tsunami, which advocates non-violent actions, called on supporters to hold festive events across the region on Saturday afternoon.

Security was increased in some areas of Barcelona ahead of the election, with government sources saying they were worried about the risk some of Saturday’s rallies could turn violent.

The campaign for Catalan independence has been mostly peaceful for years, but some protests turned violent last month, with a minority of mostly young people torching cars and launching petrol bombs at police.

Madrid sent around 2,500 additional national police officers – including anti-riot units – to the area to support Catalonia’s regional police force, a national police spokesman in Barcelona told Reuters.

The goal is to “guarantee that everyone can exercise their right to vote,” the spokesman said.

A Catalan police spokeswoman declined to comment on the force’s security plans.

Carme Martin, 68, who attended Saturday’s protest said she could understand some of the youth’s frustration after some of last month’s riots in Barcelona.

“I don’t like violence but (I understand) if it is defensive,” she said.

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