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Thousands rally in support of Catalan leader as he is questioned over secession poll

President of Catalonia Artur Mas (C) surrounded by Catalonia Government members, deputies of the Parliament of Catalonia, mayors and representatives from pro-independence associations waves as he arrives at Catalonia High Court to testify on October 15, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. President Artur Mas appeared before judges at Catalonia High Court of Justice to testify after the Spanish state prosecutor's office accused him and two other members of his government of breaking the law by staging an unofficial ballot on November 9, 2014.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images).
President of Catalonia Artur Mas (C) surrounded by Catalonia Government members, deputies of the Parliament of Catalonia, mayors and representatives from pro-independence associations waves as he arrives at Catalonia High Court to testify on October 15, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. President Artur Mas appeared before judges at Catalonia High Court of Justice to testify after the Spanish state prosecutor's office accused him and two other members of his government of breaking the law by staging an unofficial ballot on November 9, 2014. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images).

BARCELONA, Spain – Thousands of people waving Catalan independence flags rallied Thursday in support of regional acting President Artur Mas as he arrived at a Barcelona court for questioning over staging a symbolic referendum on secession from Spain last year.

Some 400 pro-independence mayors and independence party leaders joined Mas and his government councillors as he walked parade-style to the court building, cheered on by the crowd of some 5,000.

Chants of “independence, independence” and “this court does not represent us” rang out as Mas stopped to salute the crowd at the building’s steps.

Mas is under investigation for grave disobedience, abuse of public funds, prevarication, usurping powers and obstructing justice. If tried and found guilty, he could face disqualification from office or up to one year in jail. Two associates are also under investigation.

The probe was opened after Catalonia went ahead with the Nov. 9, 2014 referendum, defying a ruling by Spain’s constitutional Court.

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In the mock poll, less than half of those eligible took part, with some 80 per cent voting in favour of breaking away from Spain.

Mas headed the “Together for Yes” pro-independence alliance that last month won the most seats in a regional election but fell short of a majority. The election was billed as a de facto vote on secession.

That alliance is negotiating with another pro-independence party to try to form a coalition majority, and Mas has promised to set Catalonia on a path toward independence by 2017 if he gets the majority.

The pro-independence groups garnered 48 per cent of the total vote against 52 per cent for parties opposed to independence.

Spain has ruled out any possibility of Catalonia becoming independent.

Polls show Catalans overwhelmingly support the right for a secession referendum but are evenly divided over independence.

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Giles reported from Madrid.