BARCELONA, SPAIN - Thousands of supporters of the secession of Catalonia from the rest of Spain marched in Barcelona on Tuesday to mark two years since a banned independence referendum that shook Spanish politics.
More rallies were held in towns across northeastern Catalonia region of 7.5 million people, where separatist sentiment has been on the rise for nearly a decade.
They are being watched by all sides as a sign of the independence movement's strength and its capacity to keep its more radical elements from tarnishing its reputation of peaceful struggle.
The demonstration in Barcelona departed from a central square and toured some of the schools that were stormed by riot police two years ago when they were turned into polling stations for the illegal vote.
Police in Barcelona estimated 18,000 participated. Many carried pro-independence flags and shouted "Not forgotten, not forgiven!" in reference to the clashes between voters and police during the referendum.
Polls and recent elections show that the 5.5 million voters of Catalonia are roughly evenly split on the independence issue. Those who don't want to sever century-old ties with Spain stayed away from the demonstrations.
Tuesday's referendum anniversary protests took place amid a strong police presence, especially in train stations and on highways.
In the town of Girona near the French border, some activists threw eggs filled with red paint at riot police and overturned large trash containers. Marchers holding smoke torches shouted "Out with the occupying forces!" at the gates of the city's Civil Guard barracks, before moving to the Spanish government's provincial delegation to stage a sit-in.
The sensitive anniversary comes as Spain's Supreme Court is set to rule on a rebellion and sedition trial against a dozen Catalan politicians and activists who were key protagonists in Catalonia's Oct. 1, 2017, independence referendum.
Any ruling that doesn't absolve the defendants will be considered "unfair," grassroots pro-secession civil society groups announced Tuesday, calling for protests and "peaceful civil disobedience" if the court rules otherwise.
The arrests last week of seven pro-independence activists who face possible terrorism charges have also angered many in Catalonia, who liken the crackdown to an attempt by Spanish authorities to criminalize their political independence movement.
The activists were linked to the grassroots, self-appointed Committees for the Defense of the Republic, or CDRs, which have called some of Tuesday's protests.
Although the judicial probe is sealed by Spain's National Court, which typically has jurisdiction over terrorism-related cases, details of the interrogations of the activists have been leaked to Spanish media.
They largely paint a picture of a secretive, organized group who allegedly prepared explosives to wreak havoc in communications and key infrastructure and planned to occupy the regional Catalan parliament in Barcelona in response to the upcoming Supreme Court's ruling.
Some of the publications linked the activities of the CDRs to the region's current and former separatist leaders. Carles Puigdemont, the ousted Catalan president who Spain considers a fugitive, denied any links to the activists during an interview Tuesday with Catalan radio in Belgium, where he fled in 2017 after the failed independence bid.
Puigdemont, who has successfully fought off extradition requests by Spain to Belgian and German authorities, accused Spanish authorities of looking for ammunition to make a fresh attempt to arrest him.
"They are trying to push a narrative to accuse me of terrorism," he said.
Pro-union politicians and newspaper editorials have criticized separatist leaders for not condemning the activists' alleged plans. In a speech Tuesday, Puigdemont's successor Quim Torra, the current regional president, said his Cabinet remained focused on establishing a Catalan Republic "without excuses," and to do it "democratically and peacefully."
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has been in a caretaker capacity since February and faces a repeated general election next month, delivered a stern warning Tuesday to the separatists. If regional separatist leaders break Spanish laws again, he told Cadena Ser radio, central authorities wouldn't hesitate to suspend the region's self-government and apply direct rule again, like they did temporarily two years ago after the divisive independence attempt.
"That's why I'm asking separatists not to play with fire. They need to condemn any violent activity," Sanchez said.