- Associated Press - Friday, September 11, 2020

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Supporters of Catalonia’s secession from the rest of Spain gathered in small groups around the northeast region Friday under orders from event organizers to maintain social distancing amid a spike in coronavirus infections.

The rallies were held on Catalonia’s main regional holiday. Separatists have gathered on Sept. 11 by the hundreds of thousands and packed downtown Barcelona for several years.

This year’s small, well-spaced rallies were organized to start at the same time across the region, with people clapping in unison and chanting “liberty” through face masks while staying several meters away from each other in public squares and open spaces.

The Catalan government’s health authorities banned gatherings of more than 10 people with the virus on the rebound in Spain.

“We will show that we are able to organize these rallies adapted to COVID and that precisely because there is a crisis, (Catalonia’s) independence is more urgent than ever because we want a state that can protect the needs of its citizens,” said Elisensa Paluzie, the leader of the pro-secession group ANC that organized many of the events.

For years, polls have shown Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents roughly evenly divided on the question of independence. Regional lawmaker Carlos Carrizosa of the unionist Citizens party cited the pandemic as evidence that the pro-secession camp is out of touch with the population.

“I want to send a message of support to all those people who are home and watching these rallies called against the recommendations of health authorities,” Carrizosa said. “We have seen for years that today’s holiday no longer represents all Catalans, just the separatists.”

Another pro-secession grassroots group, Òmnium Cultural, got creative and placed 2,850 empty chairs in a promenade in Barcelona, each bearing the name of an activist who the group claims was “persecuted” for supporting the secession movement.

Spain’s Health Ministry said a total of 29,700 people with the virus have died in the European country since the beginning of the pandemic.

After having reigned in the scope of its outbreak and relaxed strict confinement measures to restart the economy, the country again is seeing a worrying rise in confirmed cases. On Friday, Spain added 12,183 new confirmed infections, about 4,700 of them diagnosed in the previous 24 hours, to bring its total number to 566,326.

The day started with some acts of vandalism on train lines in Catalonia that delayed service. But those were far from the violent clashes between some protesters and police that injured hundreds last October after several separatist leaders were sentenced to prison for their role in a failed 2017 secession bid.

The movement’s leaders now are involved in political in-fighting, besides struggling to handle the health crisis caused by the virus.

Next week, a court could remove Catalonia’s regional president, fervent separatist Quim Torra, from office for disobeying a court request to take down what was considered a politically charged banner from the regional government seat during an election campaign in violation of election law.

Torra could call a regional election before being removed, but separatists aligned with his Together for Catalonia alliance are also considering that he cling to his post in defiance of the court.

In either case, the four major parties composing the pro-secession bloc in the regional parliament are preparing for an election at some point in the coming months.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote on Twitter that “by dialogue within the limits of the Constitution we will continue working toward mending relations in Catalonia.”

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