Catalan leader says his removal, election would hamper virus response

Catalonia's regional leader Quim Torra attends Spain's Supreme Court session in Madrid

MADRID (Reuters) – The separatist leader of Spain’s Catalonia region said on Thursday his possible removal from office would hamper its coronavirus response by triggering an unnecessary election and fuelling political tensions.

Quim Torra was speaking at the Catalan government’s delegation in Madrid after a Supreme Court hearing of his appeal against a sentence handed down by a lower court last December on charges of disobedience.

He had been banned from public office for 18 months and fined 30,000 euros but this did not come into effect pending his appeal.

The case stems from his refusal to follow the orders of Spain’s electoral committee to remove symbols supporting jailed and self-exiled independence leaders from his government palace during a national election campaign in 2019.

If upheld, the ruling would bar him from public office and very likely prompt a snap regional election.

“If the Spanish state reaches a point of such absolute irresponsibility as to disqualify me, only one party is to blame: the state itself,” he said.

His responsibility as regional head of government “means fighting the pandemic 24 hours a day,” he said. His removal would mean “punishment to a whole country in the middle of a pandemic”.

“I’m not the one who will bring this country, at such a critical time, through an irresponsible electoral period that will paralyse Catalan administration,” he said, reading a statement.

Catalonia has been a virus hotspot in Spain, which has Western Europe’s highest number of cases. As of Wednesday, 30,243 deaths had been recorded nationwide.

The separatist drive has dominated Spanish politics for the past several years. In 2017, the Catalan assembly made a unilateral declaration of independence after holding a referendum ruled illegal by Spanish judges, prompting the national government to take direct control of the region for over seven months.

Nine separatist leaders are serving prison sentences for sedition and other charges, and others are in self-exile.

The court showdown comes at a time of increasing tensions within the pro-independence movement, part of which supports talks with Madrid. Opinion polls show Catalans are mostly split on independence.

(Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

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