Spanish police assaulted voters in Catalonia trying to cast ballots for an independence referendum in a crackdown surprising in its brutality.
The police broke into polling stations swinging batons, seizing ballot boxes and paper ballots, and forcibly preventing citizens from voting.
At least 400 people were injured in the melees, according to Barcelona’s mayor.
One person is in a critical condition at a hospital in Lleida, a town in western Catalonia, a spokesperson from the hospital confirmed.
In the region of Girona, Spanish officers scuffled with angry voters before smashing their way into a school being used as a polling station and seizing ballot boxes as voting began.
Armed police also clashed with voters outside some polling centers in Barcelona.
Rubber bullets were fired at protesters in the center of the city, the Associated Press reported, with people showing minor wounds to TV cameras.
The poll has no legal status, as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution, but tens of thousands of voters were still expected to take part.
Carles Puigdemont, the head of the regional government, said Spain had used “unjustified, irrational and irresponsible violence,” adding that it wouldn’t stop Catalans voting “peacefully and democratically.”
He said batons and rubber bullets had been used against people who were protecting ballot papers and polling stations.
“Today Spain has lost even more that it had lost until now and the citizens of Catalonia we’ve achieved even more than we’ve had achieved till now,” he said.
Spanish deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said Madrid intervened with “firmness and proportionality” against the Catalan vote, adding that the regional government had behaved with absolute irresponsibility in holding the referendum, according to the Associated Press.
But Juho Romakkaniemi, a senior European Union official, tweeted that while it was “clear” the Spanish government was legally right about the Catalan referendum, “excessive actions may endanger its legitimacy.”
Madrid is trying to intimidate Catalans into submission, but from what we’ve heard from citizens, the actions of the police have had the opposite effect. It should be noted that there were young children at those polling places the police stormed, brought by parents who were urged to do so by independence activists who thought the presence of kids would keep the police from attacking.
A peaceful vote would have allowed pro-independence forces a hollow victory. But with the violent police action, the national government has handed the separatists the one thing that Madrid could not afford to give them: international legitimacy and sympathy.
Prime Minister Rajoy should survive this incident. Many Spaniards are resentful of the Catlalans who have been constantly complaining about not getting their fair share of government spending for the amount in taxes they send to Madrid. And most of those living outside of Catalonia want to see Spain remain united.
But instead of tamping down the independence movement, the actions of Spanish police have ignited a firestorm of protest that will roil the region for months — perhaps years — to come.