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Prosecutors in Catalonia on Tuesday ordered police to seize ballot boxes, election flyers and any other item that could be used in a banned independence referendum called by the Spanish region’s separatist executive.
The vote is set for October 1 and the northeastern region’s separatists are determined to go ahead with it despite Madrid’s refusal and a court ban, as the struggle between Catalonia and Spain’s central government escalates.
On Tuesday, the chiefs of the Guardia Civil and National Police forces, and of the Mossos d’Esquadra — a regional squad controlled by the Catalan government — were called to the prosecutor’s office in Barcelona.
They were then ordered to take action against authorities, civil servants or individuals “to avoid offences being committed,” prosecutors said in a statement after the meeting.
Under Spanish law, prosecutors have the power to give instructions to judicial police forces in investigating offences, as do judges.
“Police officers… will directly adopt the measures necessary to seize resources destined at preparing or holding an illegal referendum,” they said in the statement.
Specifically, they ordered police to confiscate items such as “ballot boxes, electoral envelopes, instruction manuals for members of polling stations, election flyers, election propaganda.”
Catalonia’s pro-independence executive, headed up by regional president Carles Puigdemont, called the referendum last week and they have vowed to see it through despite a ban by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government and the Constitutional Court.
Prosecutors have launched an official complaint against Puigdemont and members of his government, accusing them of civil disobedience, misfeasance and misappropriation of public funds — the latter carrying jail sentences of up to eight years.
But the order given to the police forces leaves the Mossos d’Esquadra in particular in a tough spot.
On the one hand, by law they have to follow prosecutors’ orders, but they are also directly dependent on the regional government against which they have been told to act.
Justice Minister Rafael Catala told Spanish television that “the Mossos are there to serve citizens, all of them, not just a few.”
– ‘Keep people safe’ –
Puigdemont, meanwhile, asked that the Catalan police force be left alone.
“Their main function is to keep people safe,” he told Rac1 radio.
“That’s their priority,” he added, refusing to say whether he would in turn tell the Mossos to disregard prosecutors’ orders.
Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said the regional police force should focus on the “fight against jihadist terrorism considering the level of threat” following the attacks last month in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils that killed 16 people.
Meanwhile in Madrid, Spain’s Constitutional Court temporarily suspended a Catalan law that outlines the terms of a transition to an independent state while judges consider arguments that it breaches the country’s constitution.
According to court regulations, the suspension lasts for five months while the judges come up with a ruling.
The law is meant to take effect only if the separatists win the referendum.
The court last week suspended another Catalan law that approved the October 1 independence referendum.
Hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied on Monday in Barcelona on their national day to demand their region’s secession from Spain and support the right to vote.