Spain's Constitutional Court said on Tuesday the referendum law passed by the Catalan government September 6 to hold a vote on independence was void, a spokesman said. Its decision came the same day that the Madrid High Court jailed the heads of Catalan's two main separatists groups pending an investigation for alleged sedition.
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The Constitutional Court had originally suspended the referendum law as it studied its legality, though the Catalan government went ahead with the ballot regardless.
Authorities in Madrid and Barcelona locked horns over whether the two jailed Catalan pro-independence leaders were political prisoners, as their detention looked set to reignite secessionist protests.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, given a Thursday deadline to renounce independence or face the threat of direct rule from Madrid, tweeted following the detentions: "Sadly, we have political prisoners again." The phrase made a clear allusion to the military dictatorship under Francisco Franco, when Catalan culture and language were systematically suppressed. It carries an emotional resonance given fascism is still a living memory for many Spaniards.
In response, Justice Minister Rafael Catala told reporters on Tuesday the jailing of Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium's Jordi Cuixart was a judicial decision, not a political one. "We can talk of politicians in prison but not political prisoners," Catala said. "These are not political prisoners because yesterday's prison ruling was due to a (suspected) crime."
The exchange threw a spotlight on the way the crisis has deepened divisions at the heart of Spain's young democracy, underlining the complex sense of nationhood in the euro zone's fourth largest economy. In Madrid, unionists drape their homes in the national flag, while many Barcelona apartment buildings are festooned with Catalan flags.
European capitals and financial markets have meanwhile looked on with mounting alarm since October 1, when Catalan authorities held a referendum on independence in defiance of a Spanish court ban.
Sanchez's ANC, which has organized protests of hundreds of thousands of secessionists in the past, called for further peaceful demonstrations around Catalonia on Tuesday. The biggest are expected to begin in Barcelona in the evening.
Prosecutors say Sanchez and Cuixart helped orchestrate pro-independence protests that last month trapped national police inside a Barcelona building and destroyed their vehicles.
That same incident also led to Catalonia's police chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, being investigated for sedition. He is accused of failing to order his force to rescue them from the building. He has not been detained but the High Court banned him from leaving Spain and seized his passport.
A string of companies, including two major lenders, have decided to move their headquarters outside Catalonia since the referendum.
Spanish police launched a violent crackdown in an effort to thwart it, using rubber bullets and batons on voters in scenes that shocked Spain's European neighbours.
Catalan officials say 43 percent of voters still managed to cast ballots with 90 percent in favour of breaking away. Many unionists, however, obeyed Madrid and did not vote.
One of Catalonia's major foreign investors, Volkswagen, said on Tuesday that its Spanish division, Seat, had decided to delay announcing the name of its forthcoming model. Seat, based in Martorell in Catalonia, had planned to announce the name of its 2018 sport-utility vehicle this month, about a year ahead of the 7-seat model's launch.
"With the entire Spanish media focused on politics at the moment, we have decided to find a better time," a Seat spokesman said, adding the division had also delayed the announcement of an innovation and digitization agreement. He did not elaborate.