Catalan Referendum: Hundreds Injured by Police Crackdown

Officers in riot gear jostled with hundreds of voters in Barcelona, injuring 761 ■ I never expected to see such tactics in Europe, Israeli MK says at the scene ■ Spain PM says referendum was a strategy against legality, democracy

People clash with Spanish Guardia Civil guards outside a polling station for 2017 referendum on independence for Catalonia the in Sant Julia de Ramis on October 1, 2017.
People clash with Spanish Guardia Civil guards outside a polling station for 2017 referendum on independence for Catalonia the in Sant Julia de Ramis on October 1, 2017. RAYMOND ROIG/AFP

Spanish riot police burst into polling stations across Catalonia on Sunday, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers to try to halt a banned referendum on a split from Spain as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region. 

Police broke down doors to force entry into voting stations as defiant Catalans shouted "Out with the occupying forces!" and sang the anthem of the wealthy northeastern region. In one incident in Barcelona, police fired rubber projectiles.

The Catalonia regional government says 761 people had been injured in the clashes with police. Officers in riot gear hit people with batons and forcibly removed would-be voters, including women and the elderly, from polling stations.

Thirty-eight injured in police charges in Catalonia -emergency services Haaretz

Spanish police had closed 92 polling stations across Catalonia by evening, after the clashes between riot police and voters left 12 officers injured, the Interior Ministry said. 

The referendum, declared illegal by Spain's central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a centuries-old rift between Madrid and Barcelona.

Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia failed to hold an independence referendum on Sunday, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, after more than 760 people were injured in clashes between police and voters during a ballot Madrid said was illegal. 

A man votes at the Escola Industrial, a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government, in Barcelona on Sunday October 1, 2017.
Enric Marti/AP

The people of Catalonia had been tricked in to taking part in the banned vote, Rajoy said, adding that the referendum was a strategy by the regional government against legality and democratic harmony and was a "path that leads to nowhere." 

Rajoy thanked security forces for upholding the law and doing their job. 
He also called to meet with all Spanish political parties to discuss the country's future following the referendum. 

Police burst into the polling station in a town in Girona province minutes before Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote there. They smashed glass panels to force open the door as voters, fists in the air, sang the Catalan anthem.

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.

People try to offer flowers to a civil guard at the entrance of a sports center, assigned to be a referendum polling station by the Catalan government in Sant Julia de Ramis, near Girona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Scuffles have erupted as voters protested while dozens of anti-rioting police broke into a polling station where the regional leader was expected to show up for voting on Sunday.
Francisco Seco/AP

Despite the police action, hundreds-strong queues of people formed in cities and villages throughout the region to cast their votes. At one Barcelona polling station, elderly people and those with children entered first.

People had occupied some stations with the aim of preventing police from locking them down. Organisers smuggled in ballot boxes before dawn and urged voters to use passive resistance against police.

A woman tends to her injuries in front of riot police near a school being used as a polling station for the banned Catalan referendum, Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2017.
Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg

In a school used as a polling station in Barcelona, police in riot gear carried out ballot boxes while would-be voters chanted "out with the occupying forces!" and "we will vote!".

The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.

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

"We don't know what's going to happen but we have to be here," she said.

The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

A minority of around 40 percent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue.The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.

However much voting takes place, a "yes" result is likely, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

'I've waited 80 years for this'

Organisers had asked voters to turn out before dawn, hoping for large crowds to be the world's first image of voting day.

"This is a great opportunity. I've waited 80 years for this," said 92-year-old Ramon Jordana, a former taxi driver waiting to vote in Sant Pere de Torello, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees and a pro-independence bastion.

The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.

Elsewhere, people were not able to access the ballot boxes. In a town in Girona province where Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote, Civil Guard police smashed glass panels to open the door and search for ballot boxes.

Puigdemont voted in a different town in the province. He accused Spain of unjustified violence in stopping the vote and said it created a dreadful image of Spain.

"The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans' desire to vote ... but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today," he said.

A Knesset member observing Catalonia’s independence referendum says she was shocked by the use of rubber bullets by Spanish police against crowds of unarmed protesters.

Ksenia Svetlova said Sunday the bullets used “can squash somebody’s head.” She said she saw people bleeding and injured on the scene, and hadn’t expected to see such tactics used in Europe.

Svetlova says that “we did expect a normal democratic process. We knew that a lot of police were here but still, you know, there should be a respect for the will of the people to vote regardless of what you think of the referendum.”

Nicola Sturgeon, the pro-independence leader of Scotland, which voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in a 2014 referendum, said she was concerned by the images she was seeing from Catalonia.

"Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt," she said on Twitter.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted: "Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue."