Catalan parliament speaker in court for holding independence vote

BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - - The speaker of the Catalan parliament denied in court on Friday she had committed a crime by letting the assembly vote on whether to pursue independence, and said no court could stop the separatist movement.

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Hundreds of supporters massed outside the Barcelona court to protest against the hearing, to which speaker Carme Forcadell had been summoned as part of a pre-trial investigation on charges of contempt of court and neglect of duty.

The parliament voted in July to continue with its plan to detach Catalonia from Spain, in defiance of a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court annulling an earlier resolution to form an independent state with or without Madrid’s consent.

Forcadell denied she was guilty at the hearing before the Catalan high court, which she entered after blowing a kiss to the cheering crowd.

“No court can prevent the parliament from debating the independence of Catalonia and above all what is in people’s interest,” she told reporters later, accusing the Spanish government of using the courts to quash freedom of expression.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday again ruled that the Catalan parliament’s plan to hold a referendum next September was unconstitutional, and warned Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to obey its ruling or also face criminal charges.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said he is open to greater dialogue with Catalonia but has steadfastly opposed holding a referendum.

The government on Friday said Forcadell should respect the rulings issued by the courts.

“In Spain, there is no impunity. We are all equal in front of the law, nobody can have impunity, and even less those of us who fulfill public duties,” the government’s spokesman, Education Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo, told journalists after the weekly cabinet meeting.

Former Catalan president Artur Mas told reporters outside the court that the idea of Catalonia’s independence was not a crime or a sin.

He is also set to stand trial for holding a non-binding independence referendum in 2014, defying a Constitutional Court ruling that he must play no part in it.

In that vote, more than 80 percent of ballots cast called for Catalonia to separate from Spain, although less than half of the electorate turned out. Some 48 percent of Catalans supported secession in a poll in July.

The main secessionist group “Junts pel Si” (Together for Yes), backed by the smaller leftist CUP party, won a majority of seats in Catalonia’s parliament in a regional election in 2015. Puigdemont’s government won a confidence vote in September to push ahead with secession plans.

Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Larry King