Catalonia’s defiant bid to hold a referendum on independence from Spain degenerated into ugly scenes of mayhem on Sunday, with more than 800 people injured as riot police attacked peaceful protesters and unarmed civilians gathered to cast their ballots in a vote the government had banned as unconstitutional. Thirty-three officers were also injured.
Hundreds of police armed with truncheons and rubber bullets were sent in from other regions to confiscate ballots and stop the voting, and amateur video showed some officers dragging people out of polling stations by the hair, throwing some down stairs, kicking them and pushing them to the ground. Anguished, frightened screams could be heard.
“What the police are doing is simply savage,” said Jordi Turull, spokesman for the Catalan regional government, which backs independence. “It’s an international scandal.” He said Spain has become “the shame of Europe” with its iron-fist tactics.
Police were acting on a judge’s orders to stop the referendum, which the Spanish government had declared illegal — and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said going forward with the vote only served to sow divisions.
In a televised address after the majority of polls closed Sunday, he thanked the Spanish police, saying they had acted with “firmness and serenity” — comments sure to anger Catalonians.
Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said the violence, while “unfortunate” and “unpleasant” was “proportionate.”
“If people insist in disregarding the law and doing something that has been consistently declared illegal and unconstitutional, law enforcement officers need to uphold the law,” Dastis told The Associated Press in an interview.
Speaking in Barcelona after polls closed, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont said Catalonia had “won the right to become an independent state.”
“Today the Spanish state wrote another shameful page in its history with Catalonia,” he said, adding that he would appeal to the European Union to look into alleged human rights violations during Sunday’s vote.
By day’s end, Catalan’s health services said 844 people had been treated in hospitals for injuries, including two in serious condition and another person who was being treated for an eye injury that fit the profile of having been hit by a rubber bullet.