Catalans in court over 'sedition' as Spain tensions escalate



Catalonia's police chief and prominent separatist leaders appeared in court Friday accused of sedition over unrest in the region's contested independence drive, escalating Spain's volatile political conflict.

The national courts cracked down after threats by Catalan leaders to unilaterally declare independence in Spain's deepest political crisis in a generation.

The national government has vowed to block the move, which Catalan leaders say could come as soon as Monday.

Catalonia's second-biggest bank said it was shifting its legal headquarters out of the region due to the turbulence and top footballers have weighed in on the crisis.


- Protests, unrest -


Catalan regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero was accused of failing to rein in protesters who clashed last month with national security forces who raided regional government offices in a crackdown against the independence drive.

Trapero went before an investigating judge at Madrid's National Court on Friday, followed by two other defendants: the leaders of Catalonia's two most prominent pro-independence civil groups, Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural and Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC).

A fourth defendant, senior Catalan police official Teresa Laplana, was due to appear before the judge by video link for health reasons, court officials said.


- Police violence -


Tension mounted this week after Catalan leaders pushed ahead last Sunday with an independence referendum, defying the national government and courts.

The vote was marred by violence as national security forces beat unarmed voters and shut down some polling stations.

Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont lashed out at the government's "catastrophic" handling of the crisis and said he was open to mediation.

But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's office retorted that the government "will not accept blackmail".


- Heading for flashpoint -


Spain's Constitutional Court on Thursday ordered the suspension of a session scheduled for Monday in the Catalan parliament at which some leaders have called for an independence declaration.

If Catalonia declares independence, Spain could respond by suspending the region's existing autonomous status and imposing direct rule from Madrid.

The speaker of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell warned such a move "would just increase support for the pro-independence side."

She appeared to hint that the regional parliament would push on with Monday's session despite the court ban, rejecting the ruling as a breach of "freedom of expression."

That set up Monday's planned session as a potential flashpoint, raising the question of how the Spanish state will respond. 

Sunday's violence appalled people everywhere, including Catalans opposed to independence.


- Economic stakes -


With its own language and cultural traditions, demands for independence in Catalonia date back centuries but have surged during recent years of economic crisis.

Catalonia is the country's richest region, accounting for a fifth of Spain's economy and is home to thousands of domestic and foreign companies employing millions of people.

Spain's fifth-biggest bank Sabadell decided on Thursday to shift its registered domicile away from Catalonia in an administrative process expected to take a few days, a company spokesman said Thursday.

Catalonia's biggest lender CaixaBank was also set to hold discussions on Friday about possibly shifting its legal domicile out of the region, a source close to the matter told AFP.

Credit rating agencies Fitch and Standard & Poor's have warned they may downgrade Catalonia's sovereign debt rating.


- Footballers speak out -


Barcelona Football Club, a powerful symbol of Catalan identity, and its captain Andres Iniesta called for dialogue to settle the crisis.

"Before we do any more harm, those in charge of all this must hold dialogue. Do it for all of us. We deserve to live in peace," Iniesta wrote on Facebook.

His Spain team mate Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid said he hoped the crisis will be "resolved as soon as possible."

He spoke at a news conference ahead of Friday night's World Cup qualifier against Albania.

But Ramos also said "hats off" to Spain's King Felipe, who angered Catalan leaders by calling them to drop their independence drive.

Madrid branded Sunday's vote a "farce" and Felipe VI sided with the central government, accusing separatist leaders of endangering Spain's "stability."