In a striking rebuke of the Spanish government's attempt to repress Catalonia's upcoming independence referendum by shutting down websites, arresting politicians, seizing millions of ballots, and threatening to block polling stations, tens of thousands of students and activists took to the streets of Barcelona Thursday to express their support for the vote and denounce government efforts that Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has characterized as "Franco-style" crackdowns.
"It's no longer about calling for independence. It's about standing up for our basic principles and rights."
"It's no longer about calling for independence," one student, Laia Ferrus, told CBS News. "It's about standing up for our basic principles and rights."
"Independence" was, nonetheless, among the many chants—"These streets will always belong to us" was another—that rang out as the students marched through Barcelona in what one university spokesperson called the largest ever Catalan student protest. Some estimates put the number of demonstrators at 80,000.
Watch a video of the protests:
In the face of such mass uprisings, the Spanish government has held firm to its insistence that the referendum—set to take place on Sunday—would violate the nation's constitution, but United Nations human rights experts warned Thursday that further attempts by the government to block the vote would "heighten tensions and social unrest."
"The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain's democracy," concluded David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of free expression, and Alfred de Zayas, independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order.
The UN officials' statement came on the heels of Barcelona mayor Ada Colau's call for the European Union to step in and mediate what she labeled the "Europe's most serious territorial crisis" in an op-ed for the Guardian on Wednesday.
"Defending the fundamental rights of Catalan citizens against a wave of repression from the Spanish state is also the same as defending the rights of Spanish and European citizens."
—Ada Colau, Barcelona mayor"Defending the fundamental rights of Catalan citizens against a wave of repression from the Spanish state," Colau wrote, "is also the same as defending the rights of Spanish and European citizens."
As voting day approaches, Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium, two pro-independence groups, sent a memo to supporters calling urgently for non-violence ahead of a day expected to be full of heated confrontation between government officials and pro-independence crowds.
"Peaceful resistance, zero violence," read the groups' memo, which was obtained by Reuters. "If you can't access the voting stations, by no means should you respond with violence."
"Above all, bear in mind this is not a demonstration but a giant queue," the ANC and Omnium concluded. "The picture of millions of people queuing with a ballot paper in their hand will be more impressive."