MADRID • Self-exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has lashed out at Madrid after a court imprisoned separatist leaders who backed an ill-fated declaration of independence, inflaming the movement's resolve and threatening to deepen Spain's divisions.
"As the legitimate president, I demand the release of all the members of the Catalan government," Mr Puigdemont said in an address on Catalonia television on Thursday. "This is a grave error. It's an attack on democracy."
Pro-independence demonstrators took to Barcelona's streets when eight officials from the ousted Catalan administration were jailed after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy turned to the courts to punish those behind the independence drive. Officials from Barcelona's City Hall unfurled a banner that read "Freedom for political prisoners" after the decision to jail the group, which includes Vice-President Oriol Junqueras.
A defiant Mr Puigdemont - TV3 said he spoke from somewhere in Belgium - told residents of Catalonia to prepare for a "long and ferocious" period of repression.
With Catalonian regional elections called for a few days before Christmas, a poll published on Thursday by the El Espanol news website suggested that pro-independence candidates are set to win 68 seats, a slim majority in the 135-seat assembly.
"Whatever the legal arguments may be, it looks like a tough approach that doesn't move the process forward and leaves positions more entrenched," said Oxford Economics analyst Angel Talavera. "We are no closer to any kind of resolution."
Evidence emerged yesterday of the possible economic strains caused by the crisis. Catalonia accounted for more than a quarter of the increase of 56,844 in the number of Spaniards newly registered as unemployed in October.
TOUGH ROAD TO INDEPENDENCE
This allows separatists to revamp their message going into the election, but the concept of actual independence remains remote. They're going to be negotiating from a weakened position.
MR IGNACIO MOLINA, senior analyst at the Madrid-based Elcano Institute on the Catalonian regional elections.
The six men and two women from the ousted administration who submitted to Madrid's authority were incarcerated because of flight risk pending a trial. Mr Raul Romeva, the ousted head of foreign affairs for the regional government, and Mr Jordi Turull, who was regional spokesman, were among the group. All face up to 30 years in prison for sedition and rebellion.
Catalonia's 7.5 million people remain deeply divided over their relationship with Spain. The semi-autonomous government will be restored after the December election. But it does not control the tax takings that account for about a fifth of Spain's total.
With the dispute now shifting to the Spanish judiciary, Mr Rajoy needs to manage his victory over the rebel region without making political martyrs of the Catalans.
"It suffices to recall that some of the accused have gone to other countries, eluding penal responsibilities," National Court Judge Carmen Lamela wrote in her ruling on Thursday. "There is a high risk of repeat criminal action, taking into account that the criminal activities described in this ruling have been planned and carried out in a conscious way by the accused for more than two years."
The spectacle of a democratically elected government in court - and then in jail - may be the last thing Mr Rajoy needs as he seeks to bring Spain's economic powerhouse back into the national fold.
"This allows separatists to revamp their message going into the election, but the concept of actual independence remains remote," said Mr Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Madrid-based Elcano Institute. "They're going to be negotiating from a weakened position."