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Catalan leader targets police, not protesters, over street violence

The regional law-enforcement agency says it feels “defenseless” after government fails to press charges against individuals accused of participating in acts that injured officers

Protests in Plaza de España in Barcelona.
Protests in Plaza de España in Barcelona.

The Catalan government is trying to put police action at the center of the debate about the street clashes that took place in Catalonia last week between radical independence supporters and riot officers.

With a few exceptions, the regional executive led by the hard-line separatist Quim Torra has not pressed charges against any of the individuals arrested for episodes of violence, which included torching cars and street furniture, erecting barricades, looting stores and pelting the police with rocks, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles.

The police responded with rubber and foam bullets, tear gas and, on Friday night, a water cannon. Hundreds of people were injured in the week-long skirmishes in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Barcelona city officials have estimated the damage to street furniture at €2.7 million.

Miquel Buch, the head of the Catalan interior department.
Miquel Buch, the head of the Catalan interior department. Europa Press

The street protests began on Monday of last week, when the Supreme Court announced its decision sentencing nine separatist leaders to prison for sedition in connection with the unilateral secession attempt of 2017.

The independence movement had said that it would only accept a full acquittal, and responded with large mobilizations organized through social media by a leaderless group called Democratic Tsunami, which looks to the Hong Kong protests for inspiration. The largely peaceful daytime demonstrations descended into violence for five nights in a row, led by groups of young radicals.

Torra has denounced police violence, and instructed the head of the regional interior department, Miquel Buch, to conduct “the necessary investigations” into the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, who worked together with Spain’s National Police to contain the radical protesters.

Catalan premier Quim Torra this week said he wants accountability for the police action.
Catalan premier Quim Torra this week said he wants accountability for the police action. EFE

The Catalan interior department routinely presses charges in cases where there are injured Mossos. It did so on Wednesday, when it sought prison terms for four individuals who were arrested during an attempt to surround the Spanish government’s delegation headquarters in Barcelona. Since then, however, no charges have been brought against 30 other people being held in custody on allegations of criminal behavior.

An official government spokesperson denied any change in attitude, but sources at the Barcelona prosecution services, at the Catalonia High Court and at the Mossos d’Esquadra have confirmed this lack of prosecutorial action.

Officials at the regional law enforcement agency, which answers to the Catalan government, say they feel abandoned.

“We feel completely defenseless. This affects the defense of our officers,” said one Mossos source. “One could understand it if they investigated some of the [police] actions, but you can’t understand how they are leaving you legally defenseless.”

A barricade set on fire during protests in Barcelona last week.
A barricade set on fire during protests in Barcelona last week. GTRES

Sources at the Catalan interior department said that they will press charges later on. And the mayor of Girona, Marta Madrenas of the separatist party Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), said the city would press charges against the police for “arbitrary and uncontrolled” behavior.

In recent days, leaders of the independence movement have been requesting the resignation of Catalan interior chief Buch and an end to “the police repression.” While the regional premier condemned the violence by a minority of protesters last week, Torra has placed the emphasis on the police. On Tuesday, he insisted on the need for “accountability” at the regional law-enforcement agency. Unions have called his statements “indecent.”

Meanwhile, a recently created agency called the Office of Civil and Political Rights has expressed support for the arrested protesters and criticized police action as well. “We have witnessed abusive and punitive use of force, although we have received a more negative assessment about the National Police than about the Mossos,” said the agency’s director, Adam Majó, who is a former leader of the separatist, anti-capitalist CUP party. Majó admitted that some of the radical protesters’ actions “went beyond freedom of assembly,” but insisted that the police’s response has created “social alarm.”

And the Síndic de greuges, Catalonia’s ombudsman agency, has also opened an investigation into the police’s actions. This body has sent a letter to the EU Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovich, to inform her of this investigation.

Following the unauthorized independence referendum of October 1, 2017, the Mossos d’Esquadra were accused by Madrid of failing to adequately comply with orders to stop the vote from taking place. At that time, the law-enforcement agency’s loyalty was questioned, and its former chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, is facing a trial of his own for rebellion and sedition in connection with the breakaway attempt.

English version by Susana Urra.

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