Hundreds of thousands of Catalan independence supporters flooded the streets of Barcelona Sunday calling for the release of jailed separatist leaders after a supreme court ruling frustrated their latest attempt to elect a regional leader.
Around 350,000 demonstrators clogged several main city arteries waving flags and wearing yellow in support of separatist leaders jailed for their role in the region's banned drive to split from Spain last year.
Many chanted "Freedom for the political prisoners" as they massed on the Parallel Avenue, one of the city's main streets, wearing yellow scarves, sweaters or jackets -- the colour chosen to show solidarity with the jailed leaders.
The march was called by a platform set up in March to "defend Catalan institutions" and "the rights and fundamental freedoms" of its citizens.
The protest was backed by the Catalan branches of Spain's two largest trade unions, the CCOO and the UGT, sparking unease among union members who oppose independence for the wealthy northeastern region.
"There have been tensions (among unions members) just like in the rest of the Catalan society," the secretary general of the Catalan branch of UGT, Camil Ros, told AFP Saturday on the eve of the march.
"But it is not a separatist protest. It is time to build bridges and the Catalan problem cannot be solved through the courts but by dialogue and politics," he added.
Among the politicians facing charges of rebellion is Jordi Sanchez, the latest candidate put forward by Catalan lawmakers to become leader of the region.
Supreme court judge Pablo Llarena refused last week to release him from jail and he faces up to 25 years on charges of rebellion, marking the latest of four unsuccessful attempts to elect a new leader. If a new leader is not named before the end of May, Catalonia will be forced to call another election.
The modern Catalan uprising stems from the Spanish constitutional court ruling in 2010 denouncing the regional government’s aspiration for more autonomy, and deeming it unconstitutional.
In 2006, during the time when Zapatero government (PSOE) was in power, the Catalan parliament brought forth demands for increased self-governance in Catalonia through a 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, a law passed by the legislature in the autonomous Spanish community, which went on to be approved by Spain’s parliament and later ratified in a referendum by Catalan voters.
Then-opposition party PP challenged the statute, taking it to the constitutional court, which after four years, in 2010, decided against the statute, overruling it as an unconstitutional regional power move.
The constitutional court also struck down the idea of making the Catalan language more visible in the public sphere. "The interpretation of the references to ‘Catalonia as a nation’ and to ‘the national reality of Catalonia’ in the preamble of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia have no legal effect," the constitutional court had decreed.