Catalan separatists' strength to be tested with Barcelona rally

The march comes amid growing divisions and ahead of important court verdicts

Divided after their failed 2017 secession bid, Catalan separatists will rally in Barcelona on Wednesday in a test of strength before a Spanish court rules on the fate of those who led the independence push. 

11 September is Catalonia's national day which marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714.
Known as the "Diada", it has always been widely observed, but since 2012 Catalan separatists have used the occasion to hold massive rallies that in the past have drawn up to a million people. This year's demonstration will take place in Plaza Espana in Barcelona at 17:14 (15:14 GMT) in a nod to the anniversary.

The mood in the separatist camp, however, is very different from two years ago when Catalonia's regional government pushed ahead with a banned independence referendum on 1 October, 2017 - marred by police violence - then made a short-lived declaration of independence.

The rally comes just a few weeks before the Supreme Court is to deliver verdicts in the high-profile trial of 12 separatist leaders charged over their role in Catalonia's separatist bid, which plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in decades. Former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras and eight others face the most serious charge of rebellion. Public prosecutors have asked that he spend 25 years behind bars.

Catalan separatist leaders have for months tried to prepare a united response to the looming verdicts, but they remain increasingly split over strategy.

"On the eve of these verdicts, it is important that we are seen as strong and massively mobilised," Elisenda Paluzie, president of powerful grassroots pro-independence group ANC which organises the protest, told AFP.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also described it as "an especially important day" for Catalonia and said he hoped it would once again unite all Catalans.

"Let's hope a day comes when the Diada becomes the festival for all Catalans and not just a part of them," he told parliament on Wednesday.

At the rally, demonstrators will form the shape of a giant star which the ANC says will symbolise a state "as well as the joint effort of the Catalan people to defend their right of self-determination".

"It is essential to have a united strategy that allows us to achieve independence. The first step is filling the streets on 11 September," an ANC statement said.

But two years on from the independence bid, the two main separatist parties that govern Catalonia are bitterly divided over the path ahead. Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia party has called for "confrontation" with Madrid if the Supreme Court hands down guilty verdicts. But Junqueras' leftist party ERC has called for dialogue with Spain's central government, which is less hostile to the separatists since Sanchez's Socialists came to power in June 2018. Catalan vice president Pere Aragones of the ERC on Tuesday said the "harsher the sentence... the greater the need there will be to settle this issue politically".

Against this backdrop of division, there are fears that turnout at this year's rally will drop.

Radical separatists meanwhile have called for an alternative rally outside of Catalonia's regional parliament, which they want to occupy.

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