Barcelona, Spain — Spain’s top court ruled Tuesday that a recent independence referendum in Catalonia was unconstitutional, adding legal weight to the government’s efforts to block an attempt by the wealthy region’s leaders to break away from the rest of the country.

Armed with that Constitutional Court ruling, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government is in a stronger position to potentially strip Catalonia of its self-government, or parts of it, for disobeying the law. Rajoy has given the secession-minded regional authorities until Thursday to back down from their independence ambitions.

The court’s ruling wasn’t surprising — Spain’s government had repeatedly insisted the vote was illegal. But regional leaders defied the Madrid-based central government and went ahead with the Oct. 1 referendum on whether the region should separate from Spain. They say the “Yes” side won and that the result gave the region a mandate to declare independence.

Despite the Constitutional Court’s decision, the supporters of secession in Catalonia showed no signs of giving up. They have portrayed the central government as repressive.

“We are facing an executive power in the state that uses the judiciary branch to block the legislative,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told reporters shortly after the ruling was announced.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont made an ambiguous statement about the region’s future last week, saying he has the mandate to declare independence but adding that he would not immediately move to implement it in order to allow time for talks with the central government.

Spain has said that no dialogue can take place with independence on the table because a reform of the country’s Constitution with an ample majority in the national parliament is the only legal way to achieve secession.

Tuesday’s court ruling came a day after a Madrid judge provisionally jailed two Catalan independence leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, in a sedition probe. The judge ruled they were behind huge demonstrations Sept. 20-21 in Barcelona that hindered the police operation against preparations for the referendum.

Meanwhile, Agusti Alcoberro, the man who is standing in for Sanchez as head of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, said peaceful protests will be the local response to what he said are the Spanish government’s heavy-handed approach.

“No modern state in the 21st century can survive if it bases its legitimacy on subjugating politically and dominating part of its population with the police and military,” Alcoberro told The Associated Press. “That is suicidal, and somebody should explain it to the Spanish government.”


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