Barcelona (AFP) - Catalonia leader Artur Mas on Thursday challenged court charges against him for staging a ballot on independence from Spain, in the latest skirmish of his secessionist battle with Madrid.
The Catalan independence movement has raised political tensions in Spain as it recovers from several years of recession and prepares for a general election on December 20.
Thousands of cheering supporters rallied outside the courthouse in Barcelona as Mas went before a judge for questioning over charges of civil disobedience and misuse of public funds in organising the vote on November 9, 2014.
"I hold myself responsible for all of this. I am not avoiding any of my responsibilities," the 59-year-old told a news conference afterwards.
Defending the unity of Spain, the central government says holding an independence vote is against the constitution since all Spaniards have the right to decide on matters of sovereignty.
Mas's allies have branded the case politically motivated and accuse Spanish authorities of going after him to disrupt his drive for the rich northeastern region to secede.
"Whether to act like a democrat is to act like a delinquent, I leave that in the hands of the justice system," Mas said.
"In my judgement, acting like a democrat means listening to the people."
- Rallies outside court -
Local police said some 3,000 people joined the demonstration in his support.
"We are all Mas," yelled the crowd.
In a sign of the tensions over the statehood drive, the court service earlier complained that such demonstrations near the tribunal were an "attack on judicial independence".
Mas and his two codefendants deny the charges.
He said he told the court the vote was run by volunteers and he gave no "orders or instructions" to organise it.
Last year the Spanish government went to court to block Mas's plan for a full referendum like the one Scotland held in September 2014.
The Constitutional Court, whose judges are mostly seen as conservative and appointed by Spanish leaders, upheld its complaint.
Mas instead staged the November vote as a non-binding symbolic ballot.
About 2.3 million of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants took part and nearly 1.9 million voted in favour of independence.
"A democratic success should never end up in the law courts," Mas said on Thursday. "This is a political case and should have a political solution."
The government insists the lawsuit aims to enforce the law.
"The justice system in Spain is independent," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told reporters in Brussels.
"Making threats and trying to stop the courts taking the decisions they should is absolutely unacceptable," he said, in a reference to the protests.
- Historical sensitivities -
Thursday's hearing coincided with a sensitive date in Catalan history: the 75th anniversary of the execution of Catalan nationalist leader Lluis Companys by firing squad under Francisco Franco's dictatorship.
Before his hearing, Mas laid flowers at a ceremony to commemorate the death of Companys, who in 1934 declared a short-lived Catalan state.
Mas's supporters bitterly criticised the choice of date for the hearing.
Catalans' long-standing demands for greater autonomy have intensified over recent years as Madrid has resisted their bids for reform, and have surged in the recent economic crisis.
Mas teamed up with other separatists in a joint list in the September 27 Catalan regional election, making it a de facto vote on secession.
The alliance won enough seats to control the Catalan parliament if it teams up with the far-left separatist group CUP.
Mas's alliance had vowed to declare independence for Catalonia by 2017 if it won.
But it must first reach an agreement with the CUP, which does not want the conservative Mas re-elected as regional president.