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Catalonia vows to defy Spain, hold secession vote

Catalonia vows to hold secession vote Sunday despite latest legal setback

Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia vowed Tuesday to defy both the central government and the country's highest court and proceed with a much-disputed weekend vote on whether to secede from Spain.

Hours earlier, Spain's Constitutional Court ordered Catalonia to freeze its plans for an independence vote, scheduled for Sunday. It was the second time the court issued an order siding with Madrid, which considers any Catalan independence vote illegal.

But Catalan leaders said they would not back down.

"Everything is all set for Nov. 9," Francesc Homs, a spokesman for the Catalan regional government, said at a news conference. "We are maintaining our participatory process. We couldn’t say this any clearer -- and we’re doing so regardless of the consequences."

Homs said the Catalan government would use the Constitutional Court to sue the central government "for threatening the right ... to freedom of speech."

The Spanish government has not specified what legal consequences Catalan leaders, poll workers or voters might face Sunday, when they go to vote. But Madrid has reportedly readied thousands of Civil Guard police officers to travel to Catalonia this weekend if needed.

Just like Scotland, which held an independence referendum in September (but voted to remain in the United Kingdom), Catalonia had hoped to hold a similar referendum this autumn. But Spain's Constitution says the unity of the country is indivisible. The central government says it is the only authority with the power to call referenda, and that they must be voted upon by all Spaniards, not those from only one region. It considers any Catalan vote unconstitutional, and took its case twice to the Constitutional Court.

After a previous court ruling in September, Catalonia tweaked its voting plans. It recruited tens of thousands of volunteers to guard polling stations, to try to protect civil servants from prosecution. In its latest form, Catalan leaders call the vote a nonbinding, unofficial "participatory process," and acknowledge that its results are unlikely to be recognized.

With its capital, Barcelona, Catalonia has about 7.5 million residents and is one of Spain's wealthiest regions, benefiting from an industrial history and tourism. With its own language and culture, Catalonia has long sought autonomy from the central government in Madrid. Many of the region's residents were on the losing side of Spain's bloody 1936-39 Civil War. They endured repression under nearly four decades of military rule by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. More recently, in Europe's debt crisis, many Catalans felt their wealthy region was subsidizing poorer parts of Spain.

In both of its rulings, the Constitutional Court ordered Catalonia to suspend its plans for a vote, while the court studies its legality. That process could take months.

Meanwhile, ballot boxes are being readied this week at schools and town halls across Catalonia. A media center has been set up for international press, and a series of concerts and rallies is planned for the weekend.

Opinion polls show Catalans are roughly evenly divided on whether to stay part of Spain, or break away and start their own new country. But a large majority of Catalans favor voting on the issue.

Frayer is a special correspondent.

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