October 13, 2016 / 1:50 PM / 3 years ago

Former Catalonia head to stand trial over 2014 independence vote

Artur Mas gestures during a news conference at the regional government headquarters at Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain, January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

MADRID (Reuters) - The former leader of Catalonia will stand trial for holding an independence referendum, the regional court ruled on Thursday, potentially fuelling tensions with a Spanish government determined to resist separatism.

In November 2014, when Artur Mas was regional governor, campaigners held a non-binding vote on breaking away from Spain, which Mas supported despite Spain’s constitutional court ruling he must play no part in it.

More than 80 percent of ballots cast called for Catalonia - which has its own language and culture - to separate from Spain, although less than half of the electorate turned out.

The prosecution has called for Mas to be disqualified from public service for 10 years and his two advisors, Irene Rigau and Joana Ortega, who must also stand trial, to be barred for nine years. They all face accusations of “disobedience and prevarication” against the constitutional court.

Mas was ousted as regional leader last year in a power struggle between rival independence factions, but the 60-year-old remains an important figure as head of Convergencia, the ruling Catalonian pro-independence party.

His successor as governor, Carles Puigdemont, has vowed to press ahead with a “road map” to independence for the northeastern region that is centered around the city of Barcelona, despite the constitutional court ruling it illegal.

The 2014 referendum was run by volunteers to bypass legal restrictions, but the Catalonia court said there was evidence Mas had failed to prevent recruitment of people to help run it and that he had overstepped his authority.

Mas was not immediately available to comment. He has said in the past there was no official backing for the event which was run entirely by volunteers and had no legal weight.

“We said before the vote that it had no legal basis. It wasn’t in order to claim independence for Catalonia the next day. It was to know how many people in Catalonia were in favor of or against independence,” he told reporters last month.

Writing by Paul Day; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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