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Catalan leaders, thousands of people hold rally to protest detention of two leaders

Catalan leaders and thousands of people have held protesting rallies across Catalonia to express their strong dissent against the arrest of two of the autonomous region’s prominent leaders by security forces, more than two weeks after the rich region held a controversial referendum on independence in open defiance of the Spanish central government in Madrid.

Representatives of the Catalan government, including Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, joined several hundreds of people in a gathering outside the Palau de la Generalitat, in the capital Barcelona, on Tuesday to protest against the detention of Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly and Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural in a Monday move by the National Court in Madrid.

Meanwhile, thousands of other people, mostly workers, also took to the streets across the northeastern region to protest at the imprisonment of the two separatist leaders, who are accused of heading protests in Barcelona on September 20, while police were attempting to round up Catalan officials ahead of the vote.

They are both currently being held without bail and are facing a possible up to 15 years in prison.

Last week, the Catalan leader signed a symbolic declaration of independence following the referendum but held off on officially declaring independence. Puigdemont claimed that 90 percent of the voters in the referendum had backed secession, but the turnout had been put at only 43 percent.

Spain has been in turmoil since the separatist government in Catalonia held a controversial plebiscite on October 1.

Madrid banned the referendum and went out of its way to avert it, raiding venues and confiscating ballot boxes and papers, arresting officials, and even installing police forces at sites where polling stations managed to get set up to physically remove voters. Security forces used batons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds of voters, wounding nearly 900 people.

President Puigdemont has been ordered by Madrid to clearly say whether or not he intends to declare independence outright following the referendum.

The separatist leader has so far refused to give a definitive response after issuing the cryptic “suspended” declaration of independence last week, calling instead on Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to come to the negotiating table.

Puigdemont has repeatedly called on Madrid for mediation since holding the referendum, which was attended by some 2.26 million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters and saw over 90 percent of them vote in favor of secession.

Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, had held a symbolic referendum back in November 2014, during which more than 80 percent of participants voted for independence, according to Catalan officials.

The region has a population of 7.5 million people, who speak their own language and have their own cultural traditions, and a political movement for splitting from Spain that has strengthened in recent years.

Catalonia, Spain’s wealthy region, accounts for a fifth of the country’s economy.

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