Students wear Esteladas, or Catalan separatist flags, as they protest the imprisonment of Sanchez and Cuixart [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain – Catalan protesters in Barcelona are calling for the release of two men they consider the first “political prisoners” in their quest for independence.

Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultuar and Jordi Sanchez of the National Catalan Assembly (ANC) were imprisoned without bail in Madrid on Monday, pending a trial on charges of sedition in relation to their separatist organising efforts.

“They are political prisoners,” Jordi Graupera, a Catalan author and postdoctoral researcher at Princeton, told Al Jazeera. “They are being punished for being successful in their peaceful resistance strategy.”

Omnium and the ANC are grassroots organisations that have long assisted in pro-independence campaigns, including the disputed October 1 referendum on Catalan independence.

On Monday night in Barcelona, people banged pots and pans outside their windows in protest. On Tuesday, a city-wide “stop” in work began at midday in a show of solidarity.

Various civil society organisations are planning a march to the Spanish government headquarters in Barcelona on Tuesday evening.

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catala said the Catalan leaders’ imprisonment represented the “normal functioning of Spanish justice”, adding, “we can talk about prison policy, but not political prisoners”.

Xavier Garcia Albiol, leader of Catalonia’s ruling right-wing Popular Party, applauded the decision to imprison Cuixart and Sanchez.

“Rule of law ends up putting everyone in their place,” he tweeted.

But Josep Costa, a professor of political science at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra, said the imprisonment marked “another episode showing the complete breakdown of rule of law in Spain”.

“It’s the government filing the charges and seeking the imprisonment of political opponents,” Costa said. 

Standoff

The imprisonment of Cuixart and Sanchez is the latest development in a heightening political crisis in Spain.

The Spanish High Court ruled as unlawful the October 1 Catalan referendum, with Madrid ordering police to stop the poll while respecting voters.

But Spanish National Police and the Civil Guard, a military body tasked with law enforcement, used “excessive force” to stop the vote, according to rights groups.

Catalans voted to secede from Spain, but turnout was reportedly lower than 50 percent.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, second from right, and other politicians stand in front of the regional government headquarters to protest against the Catalan activists’ imprisonment [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

On October 10, Puigdemont declared an independent Catalan state and then suspended the effects of the declaration. He says his intent was to foster dialogue with Madrid.

Rajoy then gave him until Monday morning to clarify whether or not independence was declared., warning that he would enact Article 155.

Referred to as the “nuclear option”, Article 155 of the Spanish constitution has never been used before and allows the central government to take control of Catalonia’s regional government.

Puigdemont responded Monday with an offer of two months of dialogue, but failed to clarify the stance on independence.

Madrid has extended the ultimatum until Thursday morning. The central government has reiterated its warning that if Puigdemont does not clarify his stance by this deadline, Article 155 will be enacted.

Medical workers hold up placards reading ‘Freedom Political Prisoners, Sanchez, Cuixart’ [Albert Gea/Reuters]

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