Former Secretary of State for Security José Antonio Nieto has testified twice as a witness with regard to the events which took place on 1 October 2017, the day of the independence referendum in Catalonia. The first time was to give evidence in the Supreme Court, while the second was in Barcelona’s Examining Court 7, which is currently probing the Spanish police charges against voters on the day of the vote. When asked the crucial question as to who ordered the police to intervene that day, Nieto stuck to the same version of events: no one issued a specific order to act. According to him, "at no time did anyone say ‘take immediate action’". However, last Thursday four of the highest-ranking Spanish Police officers on the ground in Barcelona on 1 October contradicted Nieto in relation to the charges against members of the public. According to sources familiar with the case, the high-ranking police officers —who themselves are under investigation— declared that on 1 October 2017 they received direct orders to take action at eight o'clock in the morning.
This means the police went into action before the polling stations opened for voting and, therefore, before the Commissioner of the Mossos d'Esquadra, Ferran López, sent an email to Diego Pérez de los Cobos —who coordinated the whole operation— requesting backup in 200 voting places across Catalonia.
When asked as to who gave the order, the officers also provided a new piece of information, according to court sources: they declared that it came from a commissioner whose callsign was Marte [Mars in Spanish]. The prosecution suspect it may well refer to José Miguel Ruiz Iguzquiza, the head of the Spanish Police Intervention Units (UIP or riot police) for the whole of Spain, who supervised the police operation from the Spanish Police’s headquarters on Barcelona’s Via Laietana. The prosecution lawyers intend to request that the police commissioner be identified and that he is called to give evidence.
In addition, the four inspectors under investigation declared in court that they attended a briefing between 29 and 30 September in which they were told that they were to intervene if the Mossos d'Esquadra failed to do so, and that they were provided with a list of polling stations. In this instance, they stated categorically that Iguzquiza gave the order.
Why did they stop at midday?
The officers giving evidence declared that on the day of the referendum, the operation began at 5.30 in the morning, with the police setting off for their designated positions at 7.00. Marte’s order to act came at 8.00. The officers under investigation refused to answer the plaintiff’s questions, limiting their replies to the Prosecutor's Office, the State Attorney and the Judge. The latter is trying to resolve the two major mysteries which remain with regard to the police charges: who ordered them and why the police action ceased at midday.
With respect to the second question, one of the police officers giving evidence this Thursday stated that a new order was issued at around 14.00, telling them to stop for lunch and that subsequently no more orders were issued. Another officer pointed out that, in his case, he had only been due to participate in the operation in the morning, since he had orders to monitor public buildings in the evening.
Two lines of communication
Another aspect which needs clearing up in relation to the charges is the way in which the officers received their orders. The court documents includes various snippets of radio communications between the officers and the command centre where Marte and several other police commissioners were stationed. However, it does not constitute a complete record. According to court sources, the officers stated that when the system became overloaded they spoke to other intermediaries on the phone who also used the callsign Marte, followed by a number.
They also declared that all of the police’s actions were recorded using GoPro cameras, although these images have not been submitted as evidence.
Barcelona’s Examining Court 7 of has been investigating the police charges on 1 October for two years. The operation left some 300 members of the public injured at 27 schools throughout the city. At present some fifty police officers are under investigation, making it the largest case involving a police operation ever to have taken place in Europe.