Quim Torra, the separatist regional president of Catalonia, has been banned from public office for 18 months after Spain’s supreme court upheld the sentence of a lower court that had found him guilty of disobedience for displaying pro-independence symbols on public buildings during last year’s general election campaign.
The ruling will once again push the independence issue up the national political agenda and could trigger a fresh Catalan election early next year if the regional parliament cannot agree on a successor.
Torra, who became Catalan president in May 2018, has pursued the same confrontational approach towards independence as his predecessor, Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium following the failed, unilateral attempt to secede from Spain three years ago.
Catalonia’s high court of justice imposed the ban last December after finding Torra guilty of disobedience in the run-up to the general election eight months earlier.
During the proceedings in Barcelona, Torra admitted disobeying Spain’s central electoral board in March when it ordered him to remove a banner reading “Freedom for political prisoners and exiles” from the regional government headquarters in Barcelona.
He was also told to take down the yellow ribbons used to express solidarity with jailed Catalan independence leaders.
The board described the ribbons as “tools of political propaganda” that breached campaign laws.
Torra said he had always known that his refusal to follow the board’s orders would result in him being put on trial. But he argued that the orders were illegal and constituted an unacceptable act of censorship.
Torra appealed against the regional court’s decision in the supreme court in Madrid earlier this month, once again claiming that he was the victim of “judicial and political repression”, adding: “Whatever the judges decide now – even if it contravenes the democratic mandate of a parliament – we will not be forced to give an inch when it comes to our convictions and political objectives.”
But on Monday the supreme court judges unanimously confirmed the earlier sentence, banning Torra from holding office for a year and a half and ordering him to pay a fine of €30,000.
In its judgment, the court noted that Torra had repeatedly admitted the offences, and concluded that he had shown a “stubborn, blunt, repeated and obstinate resistance” to obeying the law.
It also found that the central electoral board had not infringed the Catalan president’s ideological rights or freedom of expression.
“As a citizen, he is free to engage in protests or acts that reflect his political identity,” said the court.
“This is about disobeying repeated orders from a constitutional body whose function is to guarantee the transparency and integrity of electoral processes, something that requires neutrality on the part of public powers and administrations.”
Monday’s decision means the regional vice-president, Pere Aragonès, will step in as caretaker president while the Catalan parliament chooses a new premier. If it fails to do so, a snap regional election will be held early next year.
Roger Torrent, the speaker of the Catalan parliament and a member of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party, said: “Barring the president of the Catalan government from exercising the right to freedom of expression is not right in a democratic system.”
He added: “Repression will not do away with the majority will of this people.”
Catalonia, however, remains fairly evenly split over the question of independence. Pro-independence parties have never managed to take 50% of the vote in regional elections. Meanwhile, popular support for seceding from Spain – which reached a record high of 48.7% in October 2017 – is at 42%, with 50.5% of Catalans opposed to it.