Spain's top court on Monday upheld a court ruling disqualifying Catalan separatist president Quim Torra from office for disobedience, triggering immediate calls for protests in the wealthy northeastern region.
The ruling by Spain's Supreme Court means Torra will have to stand down, unleashing a fresh political crisis as Catalonia's regional government struggles to contain a surge in coronavirus infections in a badly-hit area of Spain.
In a statement, Catalonia's high court, which convicted Torra in December, said the disqualification would be effective immediately with his deputy, Pere Aragones, to take over as interim regional chief.
But Torra's office told AFP that the ruling would only take effect when he is personally informed of the court decision.
Within minutes of the Supreme Court ruling, activists from the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, the two biggest grassroots pro-independence groups, called for a series of regional protests starting at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT).
"The disqualification of Quim Torra is a serious attack on the self-government of Catalonia," tweeted Omnium Cultural, accusing the Spanish government of waging a "dirty war against independence".
The sentence disqualifies Torra, 57, from holding office for 18 months, however he had been allowed to remain in power during the appeal process. The court also fined him 30,000 euros ($35,000).
Torra was convicted for refusing to remove a banner with separatist slogans from his government's headquarters in the run-up to the April 2019 general election, despite repeated appeals by the Spanish election board on grounds that it flouted institutional neutrality.
"He repeatedly and stubbornly disobeyed the orders of the Central Electoral Board to remove certain symbols from public buildings belonging to the Generalitat (regional government) during the electoral process," the judges found in a unanimous ruling, throwing out Torra's appeal.
- Courting chaos -
The regional parliament has already said it would disregard any such decision disqualifying Torra from office, and the Catalan president himself could also defy the ruling.
Monday's ruling is likely to exacerbate a bitter dispute within the region's deeply-divided separatist ruling coalition which comprises Torra's hardline Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and its partner the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).
After a Supreme Court hearing on September 17, Torra said if he was forced to stand down, it would demonstrate a "total lack of responsibility" on the part of Spain which would push the region into an "irresponsible election race that would paralyse the Catalan administration".
Catalonia's regional parliament will now have to choose a new president but if the independence factions fail to agree on a name, it will trigger fresh Catalan elections.
The ruling also complicates the picture for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who heads a minority leftwing coalition and had been hoping to secure the support of Catalan separatist lawmakers to push through the upcoming budget.
Sanchez was re-elected in January thanks to tacit support from ERC in exchange for fresh dialogue on solving the Catalan separatist issue in the wake of the failed independence bid of 2017 which sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.