MADRID – Spain's National Court on Friday unconditionally released two senior officers of Catalonia's regional police force and the leaders of two pro-independence civic groups being investigated for sedition in connection with the region's Oct. 1 referendum on independence.
The four are to be questioned again in coming days, once the court studies a report by the Civil Guard police about incidents surrounding the referendum.
The case is linked to demonstrations Sept. 20-21 in Barcelona, when Spanish police arrested several Catalan government officials and raided offices in a crackdown on preparations for the referendum. Sunday's vote has led to Spain's biggest political crisis in recent times, with the government condemning the independence referendum as illegal, unconstitutional and invalid.
The four being investigated are Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero, Catalan police Lt. Teresa Laplana, Jordi Sanchez, the head of the Catalan National Assembly that has been the main civic group behind the independence movement, and Jordi Cuixart, president of separatist group Omnium Cultural.
Trapero was questioned for about an hour, later leaving the courthouse on foot to some applause by Basque and Catalan party representatives and some insults from bystanders. Sanchez also answered questions related to his defense. Laplana, who had remained in Barcelona, declined to testify for medical reasons while Cuixart refused to testify, saying he didn't recognize the court's capacity to question him for a crime he didn't commit.
Spanish authorities say the demonstrations hindered the Spanish police operation, and that Catalan police didn't do enough to push back protesters blocking Spanish police officers from leaving a building.
Ahead of Friday's hearing, Catalan pro-independence supporters, including politicians, stood outside as Trapero, Sanchez and Cuixart walked into the National Court. Some held up referendum ballot papers. Dozens of Spanish police officers were deployed outside.
Carles Campuzano, the spokesman for the Democratic Party of Catalonia, described the hearing as an outrage, saying that the demonstrations last month can in no way be considered illegal.
"It's just another expression of the absolutely mistaken, authoritarian, repressive response by the (Spanish) state to the pacific, democratic and civic demand of Catalan society," he told reporters outside the court.
On Thursday, Spain's Constitutional Court ordered Catalonia's parliament to suspend a planned session next week during which separatist lawmakers plan to declare independence.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has urged the separatist leader of the regional Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, to cancel plans for declaring independence in order to avoid "greater evils."
In an interview with Spain's official EFE news agency on Thursday, Rajoy said the solution in Catalonia "is the prompt return to legality and the affirmation, as early as possible, that there will be no unilateral declaration of independence, because that way greater evils will be avoided."
Rajoy's remarks were the first since Sunday, when Catalonia held the banned independence referendum amid a violent crackdown by Spanish police trying to stop the voting. Puigdemont said the results of the vote validated the push to secede.
Frank Griffiths contributed to this report from London.