Spain: judge probes Catalan separatism links with Russia

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A man holding an "estelada" or independence flag waits for a protest to condemn a police raid on Catalan separatists in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Spanish officials say that police have arrested 21 individuals with links to the Catalan separatist movement on suspicion of corruption and promoting public disorder. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

BARCELONA – A judge in Barcelona is probing possible links between some of the promoters of Catalonia’s 2017 attempt to declare independence from the rest of Spain with an alleged misinformation campaign and overall effort to destabilize Europe that Spanish investigators link to Russia.

The probe authorized by judge Joaquín Aguirre led on Wednesday to the arrest of 21 suspects on suspicions of corruption and promoting public disorder. Aguirre partly based the probe on police evidence that purported Russian agents allegedly offered to provide military aid to Catalan separatists at the height of their failed secession bid in 2017.

On the recording, one of the detainees mentions an offer by the alleged Russian agents to provide former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont with 10,000 soldiers, apparently to help in a theoretical armed conflict with Spanish authorities. The court document provided no indication that the offer was ever considered by Puigdemont, nor does it provide additional evidence that the offer was even genuine, or feasible.

The Catalan separatist movement has always proclaimed non-violent beliefs, even though last year there were violent clashes with police after several top leaders were sentenced to prison for their roles in the 2017 breakaway bid.

Besides the putative military aid, the probe also targets the alleged misuse of public funds for the separatist movement in Spain as well as the allegedly active role of Russian-backed disinformation campaigns to discredit Spain.

“Russian interference as a geopolitical strategy was a fact during the fall of 2017 when (the Russians) spread fake news and disinformation," the judge said, citing online items backing the Catalan separatists spread by Russian news platforms.

The Spanish government had accused Russia in 2017 of meddling in the Catalan conflict, a charge that Russian officials denied then.

There was no immediate reaction from Russian officials Wednesday about the probe authorized by Aguirre.