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As Protesters Clog Catalonia, Court Snuffs Out Declaration Of Independence

As part of a general strike Wednesday, protesters block a major highway in Borrassa, a municipality in Catalonia. The scene was just one of several miles-long traffic jams caused by demonstrators gathering on the region's streets and railways.

Demonstrators clogged plazas and blocked roadways across Catalonia on Wednesday, calling on Spain's central government to sanction the region's bid for independence and release the eight politicians who were arrested for pursuing it. The one-day, general strike ground traffic to a halt and caused train cancellations in Barcelona and other Catalan cities.

Yet even as protesters chanted in the square outside Barcelona's parliament building, halfway across the country in Madrid, the Constitutional Court was formally annulling the Catalan parliament's declaration of independence. That declaration last month had already drawn the federal government's swift, sweeping decision to dissolve the previously semi-autonomous region's government.

And the court's move Wednesday was not unexpected: In early September, weeks before Catalans even went to the polls (amid chaotic circumstances) to vote on whether to secede, the same court had suspended the regional law that enabled the independence referendum in the first place.

Though seemingly foreordained, the Madrid court's decision still only deepened the standoff. That was nowhere more evident than a six-hour drive away in Barcelona where law enforcement sought to dislodge demonstrators intent on causing gridlock.

Reporting from Barcelona for NPR's Newscast unit, Lucia Benavides noted that the blockades had left much of the normally bustling city uncharacteristically quiet — while elsewhere, in the areas around government buildings, protesters raised cacophonous chants for the release of the lawmakers in custody, whom they called "political prisoners."

Those eight lawmakers have been jailed during a sedition and rebellion investigation against them. They face up to 30 years in prison if tried and convicted.

Meanwhile, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several fellow separatist politicians remain in Belgium, where they fled after the central government sacked regional lawmakers in retaliation for the independence declaration. They were briefly jailed there, before being released on the condition that they appear at all future court hearings and do not leave the country without permission.

"Free without needing bail," Carles Puigdemont tweeted in Catalan on Monday. "Our thoughts are with our colleagues unjustly imprisoned by a state far from democratic principles."

Puigdemont, who remains wanted by Spain for alleged crimes including rebellion and sedition, has said he and the other politicians do not intend to seek political asylum in Belgium, and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Wednesday that his government does not intend to intervene in the dispute.

"It is a question of democracy, the rule of law," Michel told the Belgian parliament, according to a Politico translation. "I will see that there is no interference, [that] the independence of justice and the separation of powers [is ensured.]"

Still, Teri Schultz reports for NPR that "it could take as long as three more months" before the politicians are sent back.

As the fate of the Catalan leaders follows its twists and turns, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis appeared to signal little bit of leeway developing in Madrid's stance on secession, which has toed a hard line so far.

"We have created a committee in parliament to explore the possibility of amending the constitution to be able to accommodate better the aspirations of some of the Catalan people," Dastis told the BBC on Wednesday.

"We acknowledge there is a political situation that deserves to be looked at but, in any case, it's clear that the decision will be taken, will have to be taken by all Spaniards."

Snap elections to refill the region's leadership positions have been scheduled for Dec. 21.

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