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Spanish expats in Hong Kong condemn police brutality during Catalonia referendum

Riot police have been accused of using excessive force during voting in the region, but expats in Hong Kong are divided on whether ballot should have taken place

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 10:55pm

Some Spanish expatriates in Hong Kong have condemned police violence in their home country, but remain divided over the legality and timing of Sunday’s referendum on independence for Catalonia.

A Madrid business leader in Hong Kong urged pro-independence supporters in the city not to “learn the wrong lesson”, and said any referendum must follow the constitution and democratic procedures.

The business leader said anonymously that the result of the referendum was not representative of Catalans as more than half of the population did not take part.

“I agree people in Catalonia have the right to self-determination,” said the expat, who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. “But they should carry out the referendum in a way that is legal and constitutional ... clearly stating the consequences, like how the secession will be executed ... It’s undemocratic also because there was no consensus on the minimum turnout.”

Catalonia showdown: ‘hundreds injured’ as police clash with voters in bid to block referendum

In Catalonia, the regional government said more than 2.2 million ballot papers were counted so far, out of 5.3 million eligible voters, suggesting a turnout of less than 50 per cent. About 90 per cent of ballots cast were in favour of independence.

Although the referendum was approved by the Catalan parliament, which is dominated by pro-independence forces, it was not authorised by the Spanish government or permitted under the constitution.

Several Spanish groups in the city were appalled with the violent clashes between police and voters, where more than 800 civilians were injured, criticising Madrid’s response to the unauthorised referendum as “disproportional” and “unjustified”.

Catalonia votes overwhelmingly for independence from Spain, in violent referendum

Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets and charged at the demonstrators who were trying to guard the polling stations. TV images showed violent confrontations between the two sides, with police kicking would-be voters and forcing their way into polling booths.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont accused the police of responding to “ballot boxes, ballot papers” with “batons and rubber bullets”.

Maria Jose Pareja, a Barcelonan lecturer in Hong Kong, said: “I would say most protesters were peaceful. The police force was not proportional. It broke my heart.

“Catalonia has its own autonomous police but they did not follow instructions to seize ballots and papers ... I guess it was hard for them to do something that goes against their beliefs ... So the Spanish police did [the raids].”

The 1,800-strong Spanish community in Hong Kong have mixed feelings about whether Catalonia should be independent.

“I would have voted yes, but not in this one. I won’t participate in anything illegal,” said Pareja. “We have our own nationalist feelings, own unique history, culture and language ... and the pro-independence sentiments are stronger now because of the police.”

But another expat from Barcelona, Mariona Anglada Escudé, said she would have taken part in the referendum if she were still living in Catalonia.

“Through the referendum people voiced their opinion and the world is now aware of the situation,” said the Spanish teacher who has lived in Hong Kong for three years. “Catalans will not forgive the police actions, though. They were brutal.”

Pro-independence sentiments have also flared up again recently in Hong Kong, with banners calling for the city’s breakaway from the mainland being hung at local universities. It has been a hot topic in district and territory-wide elections since 2015, with the central government and local authorities constantly condemning independence advocacy as unconstitutional.