Top Spain Court Upholds Catalan President's Disqualification

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Spain's top court on Monday upheld a court ruling disqualifying Catalan separatist president Quim Torra from office for disobedience, triggering protests across the wealthy northeastern region.

The decision by Spain's Supreme Court means Torra will have to stand down, unleashing a fresh political crisis as Catalonia's regional government struggles to contain a surge in coronavirus infections in a badly-hit area of Spain.

In a statement, Catalonia's high court -- which convicted Torra in December -- said the disqualification would be effective immediately with his deputy, Pere Aragones, to take over as interim regional chief. Aragones is from a different, more moderate separatist party.

The Supreme Court ruling means Catalonia's regional president Quim Torra will not be able to hold elected office for 18 months The Supreme Court ruling means Catalonia's regional president Quim Torra will not be able to hold elected office for 18 months  AFP / LLUIS GENE

Catalonia's regional parliament will now have to choose a new president but if, as expected, the independence factions fail to agree on a name, it will trigger fresh elections in the region early next year.

Torra said he did not accept the ruling, accusing the court of seeking to "overthrow Catalonia's government" and creating instability during the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

"Their thirst for vengeance is stronger than their respect for the health and lives of people," he said in a televised address where he appeared flanked by his ministers wearing face masks.

Seen here hanging on the Catalan government building, the offending banner reads "Free political prisoners and those in exile Seen here hanging on the Catalan government building, the offending banner reads "Free political prisoners and those in exile"  AFP / PAU BARRENA

He also urged Catalans to once again give pro-independence parties a majority when they return to the polls.

"We want independence, we want self-determination, but above all we want a quality democracy for our country. We will have the chance to move in this direction in elections that will be held in a few months," he said in both Catalan and English.

A man wearing a face mask bearing the Catalan pro-independence flag holds a placard reading "Free political prisoners A man wearing a face mask bearing the Catalan pro-independence flag holds a placard reading "Free political prisoners"  AFP / Pau BARRENA

The sentence disqualifies Torra, 57, from holding office for 18 months and fined him 30,000 euros ($35,000). He had been allowed to remain in power during the appeal process.

He was convicted for refusing to remove a banner with separatist slogans from his government's headquarters in the run-up to the April 2019 general election, despite repeated appeals by the Spanish election board on grounds that it flouted institutional neutrality.

Demonstration in Barcelona after top Spain court upholds Catalan president's disqualification Demonstration in Barcelona after top Spain court upholds Catalan president's disqualification  AFPTV / Anahi ARADAS

"He repeatedly and stubbornly disobeyed the orders of the Central Electoral Board to remove certain symbols from public buildings belonging to the Generalitat (regional government) during the electoral process," the judges found in a unanimous ruling, throwing out Torra's appeal.

Protests against the ruling were held outside of town halls across the region on Monday night, including the Catalan capital Barcelona and Girona, a small city at the heart of the independence movement where demonstrators burned a Spanish flag.

"For a damn banner they disqualify the president....it makes no sense. It's a mistake, one after many others," Mary Chopa, a 59-year-old stationery store owner, told AFPTV at the protest in Barcelona which gathered several hundred people.

A "small group of people" set up barricades and burned garbage containers in central Barcelona, Catalonia's regional police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, said in a tweet.

Torra, who in the past expressed anti-Spanish views that his critics call xenophobic, said he would appeal the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights.

"I will take freedom of expression and our cause for independence to Europe. And we will win."

The ruling on Monday is likely to exacerbate a bitter dispute within the region's deeply-divided separatist ruling coalition which comprises Torra's hardline Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and its partner, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

Torra became president in 2018 after former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont fled Spain to avoid being jailed over a botched 2017 independence bid.

Puigdemont then picked Torra, previously a little known activist, to take over.

Catalonia's 7.5 million people are split over independence, with the latest opinion poll showing 42 percent in favour, but 50 percent against.

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