Hundreds of people were injured as Spanish police clashed with voters in Catalonia after they seized ballot boxes at polling stations to try and stop an independence referendum that authorities in Madrid have called “illegal” and have vowed to block.
Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said 337 people were injured by “Spanish state violence” on October 1 amid battles with riot police, who smashed their way into some polling stations and fired rubber bullets outside at least one central Barcelona location as violence broke out in what has become Spain’s worst constitutional crisis in decades.
Turull said about three-quarters of the roughly 2,300 voting stations were open and urged people to continue to vote “even though they are seeing images that seemed only possible in the era of black and white TV.”
"Defending democracy will always be worth it, surrendering to the state is not worth it," he said.
The Interior Ministry said around 70 polling stations had been raided by police, and that nine national police officers and two Civil Guard officers had been injured in the clashes.
In a bid to make it easier to vote, Catalan government officials said voters could print out ballots at home and cast them at any polling station not closed down by police.
Many referendum supporters had been holding out at the schools, playing games with their children and bedding down in sleeping bags in an effort to keep the sites open until balloting started. They were instructed to peacefully resist any attempts by police to disrupt voting.
"We have been made to do something we didn't want to do," Enric Millo, the Spanish government's representative in Catalonia, told a news conference.
"It's all a sham, a farce. It is the first time in history that the rules of the game are changed 45 minutes before the start of voting," Millo said.
The proposed referendum has raised tensions in the Catalan region and throughout the rest of Spain since Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont on September 10 declared "everything ready" for the vote.
Puigdemont, who accused Spanish authorities of using "unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible" violence in the crackdown, cast his ballot in Cornella del Terri in the province of Girona, a different place from where he was initially supposed to vote. Police smashed through glass windows at the station and at the time where he had announced he would cast his ballot.
In defiance of central authorities, the regional government secretly created ballots, formed electoral rolls, organized polling stations, and made other moves to prepare for the referendum.
Puigdemont had said that the government could move within 48 hours to declare independence if the "yes" vote won, but other officials have since said the national government’s crackdown on the referendum has undermined the vote.
Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis on September 30 said the referendum was unconstitutional and that referendums have become "the instrument of choice of dictators" and are counter to the “goals and ideals" of the European Union.
Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote, but many who oppose independence have said they will not take part in the referendum.
Polls indicate a minority of around 40 percent of the region’s total 7.5 million Catalans support independence, although a majority of residents in the region nonetheless want the referendum to be carried out.
With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters