MADRID/BARCELONA—Spanish police raided Catalan government offices and arrested officials on Wednesday to halt a banned referendum on independence, an action the regional president said meant Madrid had effectively taken over his administration.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the regional government offices in the center of Barcelona’s tourist district, waving the red-and-yellow Catalan flag and chanting “Occupying forces out” and “Where is Europe?”.
“The Spanish state has by all rights intervened in Catalonia’s government and has established emergency rule,” Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said in a televised address.
“We condemn and reject the anti-democratic and totalitarian actions of the Spanish state,” he said, adding that Catalans should still turn out in force to vote in the Oct. 1 referendum on a split from Spain that Madrid has declared illegal.
State police arrested Catalonia’s junior economy minister Josep Maria Jove on Wednesday in their first raid of government offices in the region, Catalan government sources said. The raid targeted several regional government departments.
A dozen high-ranking local officials were arrested, La Vanguardia newspaper said. The police confirmed they were carrying out raids connected with the banned referendum, but did not give details. The Catalan government sources could not confirm the other arrests.
Among the protesters outside the government office in Barcelona, was Carlos, a 47-year-old taxi driver.
“We’re here so they know they can’t do whatever they want,” he said as angry protesters bore banners saying “Democracy” and “Vote to be free”.
Police efforts to stop the referendum, which the central government says is illegal, have intensified in recent days as the wealthy northeastern region shows no signs of halting it.
Acting under court orders, police have raided printers, newspaper offices and private delivery in a search for campaign literature, instruction manuals for manning voting stations, and ballot boxes.
On Tuesday, the Civil Guard, a national police force, seized more than 45,000 envelopes packed in cardboard boxes that the Catalan government was ready to send to notify people around the region about the referendum.
The first of hundreds of Catalan mayors were also forced to appear before the state prosecutor on Tuesday after they said they would back the referendum.
But the central government must tread a fine line in enforcing the law in the region without seeming heavy-handed. Polls show a minority of Catalans, albeit over 40 percent, support independence although a majority want a referendum on the issue.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Wednesday the operations in Catalonia were the result of legal rulings and were to ensure the rule of law. Markets so far have shrugged off the increasing tension.
The Constitutional Court has suspended the vote after the central government challenged its legality. Spain’s central government says the referendum goes against the country’s 1978 constitution which states Spain is indivisible.
Under Article 155 of Spain’s constitution, Madrid has the power to suspend the regional government’s authority to rule. It has yet to exercise this option as it seeks to block the vote through the courts.
By Raquel Castillo and Sam Edwards