BARCELONA (Reuters) - Thousands of people cheered Catalan President Artur Mas outside the Supreme Court in Barcelona on Thursday where he faced questions about holding an informal referendum on independence from Spain even though it had been ruled unconstitutional.
Separatist sentiment is luring votes away from Spain's two main parties ahead of a December 20 general election, especially from the ruling People's Party (PP) which has blocked attempts to hold a referendum through the courts.
Thursday's hearing was part of a pre-trial to determine whether Mas should be formally tried. He was indicted by the state prospector last month on preliminary charges of disobedience, abuse of authority and usurping authority.
"This is a political matter, and it should have been resolved politically. It seems to me a complete overreaction to criminalize it," Mas said in a news conference following his court appearance.
Supporters draped with the Catalan red and yellow striped flag chanted "president" and "independence" as Mas walked to the Supreme Court of Catalonia, flanked by hundreds of mayors from the region bearing their ceremonial maces.
"He fought and did what he had to do and we can't leave him alone now," said Isabel Princep, 58, a recently retired office clerk, outside the court. "I find it totally unfair that a Catalan president is judged this way."
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ruling People's Party (PP) got its worst result in a Catalan election in 20 years on Sept. 27, with his hardline stance against a referendum eroding support for the center-right party.
Secessionist parties secured an absolute majority in the regional parliament in the election, which some said was a proxy vote on independence from Spain, although they fell short of garnering more than half of the votes cast.
Parties favoring independence are still in talks over the formation of the government, with reluctance from the extreme left separatist party CUP to support Mas.
Opinion polls show a majority of Catalans would like to remain within Spain if the region were offered a more favorable tax regime and laws that protect its language and culture.
Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky