Case 25

Former Catalan president Artur Mas, and Catalan ministers prosecuted for organizing a non-binding referendum in 2014

Catalan president Artur Mas, before the regional Court on September 2016. Credits: Adrià Costa.
Catalan president Artur Mas, before the regional Court on September 2016. Credits: Adrià Costa.

Regional President of Calalonia, Artur Mas, announced that if he wins the elections, he will explain his propousal of referendum to Europe looking for support (3-10-2012)


On 9 November 2014, a participatory non-binding process on the political future of Catalonia was held, promoted by the Catalan Government. The ballot contained the question “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” And, if yes, “Do you want this state to be independent?”. A few days later, and by order of the State Public Prosecutor, the Superior Public Prosecutor of Catalonia filed a criminal claim against the President of the Catalan Government,Generalitat Artur Mas, Vice President Joana Ortega and the Minister of Education Irene Rigau. This claim was later expanded to include Francesc Homs, who at the time the events took place was a spokesman for the Government of Catalonia.

Mas, Ortega and Rigau were prosecuted at the High Court of Justice of Catalonia, while the trial against Francesc Homs was taken to the Supreme Court due to his condition of member of the Spanish parliament at that time. Finally, all four were convicted of crimes of grave disobedience to a fine penalty and disqualification of a maximum of one year and one month for the exercise of an elected public office. On the other hand, the Court of Auditors condemned them to pay the amount of 5 Million euros.

English Message of the President of Catalonia, Artur Mas, during the announcement of the referendum on independence. The government of Catalonia announces the citizens of Catalonia to decide on his future on November 9, 2014

The President of Catalonia, Artur Mas, has signed a decree in Barcelona paving the way for a referendum on November 9 on independence from Spain, a move the government in Madrid has vowed to block. EuroNews (27-09-2014)

The president of Catalonia is to be formally investigated for his role in holding a symbolic vote on independence in November, 2014. EuroNews


Initially, the participatory process of 9 November 2014 was supposed to be a referendum. It was motivated by Spain’s Govermnent several refuses to negotiate an increase of Catalan Autonomy, a petition that was backed by the 89% of Catalan MPs back in 2005. To this effect, on 8 April 2014, a delegation of the Parliament of Catalonia appeared in the Spanish Congress to request the transfer of the competence “to authorize, convene and hold a consultative referendum so that the Catalans can express themselves about the collective political future of Catalonia”. The petition was denied by a large majority of Spanish MPs.


After this refusal, and despite having voted in favor of a statement in the Parliament of Catalonia that affirmed that the people of Catalonia are a sovereign legal and political subject, President Artur Mas chose to promote a non-referendary Popular Consultations Law that would allow to avoid the refusal of the Spanish congress. This law was approved by a large majority of the Parliament of Catalonia on 16 September 2014, and Artur Mas signed the decree calling the consultation on 27 September 2014.


The Consultations Law was the object of an appeal of unconstitutionality by the Spanish government. The law of the Constitutional Court states that when the Spanish government submits an appeal of unconstitutionality, the Constitutional Court must immediately suspend the effects of the law that is being appealed.


Instead of going ahead with the suspended law, President Artur Mas decided to change the format of the consultation to a participatory process in order to reduce the legal significance of what was initially conceived as a referendum. However, this change in format was also suspended by the Constitutional Court. The providence that communicated this last suspension is the one that was the subject of debate in the trials.

Thousands of people have turned out in Barcelona to show their support for acting Catalan president Artur Mas.  EuroNews (15-10-2015)

Spain: Former Catalan chief Artur Mas on trial for independence referendum. France 24 (English) 6-2-2017

The outcome

On 9 November 2014, a total of 2.344.828 people participated, of which 1.897.274 voted Yes-Yes (the Catalan census was of 5.510.000 back in 2015).

The change of referendum format to consultation and from consultation to participatory process did not prevent a criminal procedure against the president and 4 of its ministers, who, apart from being disqualified and having to pay a fine, have seen their assets seized to cover the amount of 4.988.620,11€ by the Court of Auditors.

Before the judicial procedure was initiated, the Superior Public Prosecutor of Catalonia, Mr. Martín Rodríguez-Sol, was forced to resign because he had stated that, in his opinion, the citizens of Catalonia could be consulted about their political future provided this had no legal consequences. In his place, a new public prosecutor related to the Spanish Government was appointed. Subsequently, the board of public prosecutors of the High Court of Justice of Catalonia stated that the criminal prosecution in this case was a mistake. 

Catalonia’s former President Artur Mas has accused the Spanish government of abusing its power. It came on the last day of his criminal trial in Barcelona for staging a non-binding independence referendum in the region three years ago. Mas , who is accused of disobeying Spain’s constitutional court by holding the vote, as well as perverting the course of justice, faces a 10 year ban from public office if found guilty. EuroNews (13-2-2017)

Violated rights

The criminal process against the former president of the Generalitat and 4 former ministers violates the principle of the last ratio of criminal law, a doctrine that the Spanish Constitutional Court has validated repeatedly in considering it as part of the principle of proportionality established in the Spanish Constitution.

The judicial process against Artur Mas violated the right to a fair trial as provided in article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the principle of legality protected by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights. In Spain, disregarding a requirement of the Constitutional Court had never been penalized because the Constitutional Court is not part of the judiciary. As a result of these events, the Spanish Congress changed the legislation ad hoc to extend the criminal crime of disobedience, which shows that at the time the events took place it was not a crime.

Catalonia’s former leader has been barred from public office for two years for staging an informal referendum on independence from Spain. Artur Mas – who was regional governor when the vote took place – was found guilty of contempt of court by Catalonia’s Superior Court of Justice. In a low turnout in 2014 more than 80 percent of voters backed a breakaway from Spain. Speaking after Monday’s decision Mas was defiant. “We would do the same again, exactly the same. We do not regret anything.”

EuroNews (13-03-2017)

Former Catalan President, Artur Mas appeared before the press after being sentenced to a two-year ban from holding public office for allowing the 9-N symbolic vote on independence in 2014. “I accept this sentence calmly, but with absolute disconformity” said Mas and announced that he will appeal to the European Court. “We have little hope in the Spanish Constitutional Court” he said, but emphasised that those found guilty will follow the correct procedures for the appeal to reach the European justice system, in which the summonsed “have much more faith”. “The Spanish State prosecutes people due to their ideology”, he said and pointed out that he and former Vice president Joana Ortega and former Education Minister Irene Rigau “have been sentenced for disobeying the Constitutional Court”. “Unfortunately, the law is not the same for everybody in Spain”, he lamented

The sentences against the political figures responsible for the 9-N symbolic vote on independence in 2014 have outraged MEPs from different political parties. “I find it wrong”, European Conservatives and Reformists MEP Ian Duncan told the CNA and added that fining and banning from public office former Catalan President Artur Mas, former Vice President Joana Ortega and former Catalan Minister for Education Irene Rigau “would harm democracy” in Spain. In a similar sense, the Greens/European Free Alliance’s Co-Chair, Philippe Lamberts, lamented “the stubbornness of the Spanish authorities versus Catalonia” and assured that Madrid’s attitude “is making dialogue nearly impossible”. Ivan Jakovcic, from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, admitted being “disappointed” with the court’s decision and expressed his “solidarity” with Mas. 

Catalan News (17-03-2017)

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