UK

Catalonia Referendum Marred By Violence, More Than 460 People Injured

The Spanish Government is determined to prevent it.

01/10/2017 09:34 BST | Updated 01/10/2017 18:16 BST

Hundreds of people have been injured in Catalonia as authorities move to clamp down on attempts to vote - including by firing rubber bullets to disperse crowds - in the banned independence referendum.

The referendum, declared illegal by Spain’s central government, has thrown Spain into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and raised fears of street violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.

PAU BARRENA via Getty Images
Police officers walk in the street after seizing ballot boxes in a polling station in Barcelona

Hopes the day could pass with violence were dashed almost immediately.

The rubber bullets were reportedly fired at the intersection of two streets. 

Officers with riot shields jostled with hundreds of voters outside one station at a school in Barcelona as the crowd chanted “We are people of peace!” Armoured vans and an ambulance were parked nearby.

The mayor of Barcelona said more than 460 people had been injured.

The violence has been mirrored in an escalating war of words between Madrid and Barcelona, as the Spanish Government condemns the “farce” of the referendum and the Catalonian Government condemns the violence.

The Spanish Interior Ministry has tweeted videos of people throwing objects at police.

Another video showed officers retreating as people threw rocks.

Eleven police officers have been hurt.

At one point, firefighters were even blocking police at one point to prevent the removal of ballot boxes.

Catalan emergency services said 38 people were hurt, mostly with minor injuries, as a result of police action.

In the village of Sant Julia De Ramis, where Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont was expected to vote, police gathered to prevent people voting. Shortly after 9am when polls were meant to open, they were already clashing and scuffling with voters.

Officers smashed glass panels to force open the door as voters, fists in the air, sang the Catalan anthem.

David Ramos via Getty Images
A man (back) struggles with the police as other police take hold of a man and a child holding a red flower as they move in on the crowds
LLUIS GENE via Getty Images
David Ramos via Getty Images
An elderly woman is removed by police

Puigdemont later cast his vote at a station in Barcelona instead.

Organisers smuggled ballot boxes into some stations before dawn in black plastic bags.

Later, voters blocked doors at some sites in anticipation that police could try to enter and take over the stations. At one, a Barcelona school, organizers asked people to use passive resistance if police intervened.

David Ramos via Getty Images
Ballot boxes arrive at the polling station where Carles Puigdemont was expected to vote. He later voted elsewhere because of the police intervention.

“I have got up early because my country needs me,” said Eulalia Espinal, a 65-year-old pensioner who started queuing with around 100 others outside one polling station, a Barcelona school, in rain at about 5am.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen but we have to be here,” she said.

Leading up to the referendum, Spanish police arrested Catalan officials, seized campaigning leaflets, sealed off many of the 2,300 schools designated as polling stations and occupied the Catalan government’s communications hub.

In Girona at 10am, a witness reported the polls were “clogged” with people who blocked the doors when police were in sight.

 

Families have occupied scores of schools earmarked as voting centers, sleeping overnight in an attempt to prevent police from sealing them off.

“If I can’t vote, I want to turn out in the streets and say sincerely that we want to vote,” said independence supporter Jose Miro, a 60-year-old schools inspector.

Puigdemont originally said that if the Yes vote won, the Catalan government would declare independence within 48 hours, but regional leaders have since acknowledged Madrid’s crackdown has undermined the vote.

Footage on social media appeared to show police removing ballot boxes in Barcelona, while people held their fists aloft and sang in defiance.

The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court, and Madrid has the ultimate power to suspend the regional government’s authority to rule if it declares independence.

The Madrid government, which has sent thousands of police to Catalonia to enforce a court ban on the vote, believes it has done enough to prevent any meaningful referendum taking place.

Farmers have used tractors to guard polling stations in 30 Catalan towns, according to Spanish media reports.