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Catalan leader defends his government in graft probe

Catalan leader defends his government in graft probe Catalan leader defends his government in graft probe

Catalonia leader Artur Mas on Friday defended his ruling separatist Convergence party against graft allegations after a slew of arrests targeting current and former officials, AFP reports.

His remarks came after a week in which the party treasurer, and its former treasurer were detained on suspicion of charging commissions in exchange for public works contracts.

"The public procurement of the government of Catalonia is impeccable," he said during an appearance before a parliamentary commission in Barcelona.

"The system of public procurement does not have any margin for discretion and you can't give preferential treatment. If there can be no preferential treatment, why would someone have to pay commissions?"

Spanish authorities suspect that the commissions were demanded of firms which won public works contracts from town halls controlled by the party.

Police on Wednesday arrested 11 people including Convergence treasurer Andreu Viloca, as part of a graft probe targeting the party, which has spearheaded Catalonia's drive to break away from Spain.

As part of the probe, police had in August raided the party's headquarters as well as the offices of former party treasurer Daniel Osacar. 

Osacar himself was detained for questioning on Friday with the investigating judge confiscating his passport, a police spokesman said.

Mas has described the investigation as a "witchhunt" after his party won a regional election in Catalonia on September 27.

His Together for Yes coalition -- comprising Convergence and leftist separatists ERC -- clinched 62 seats, six seats shy of an overall majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

The arrests come as Mas seeks the support of the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), whose 10 seats would give the pro-secession parties an outright majority in the assembly.

During the campaign Mas vowed to set Catalonia on a path toward independence within 18 months if he gets backing from the regional parliament.

Catalonia is home to 7.6 million people and accounts for one fifth of Spain's economic output.

  Presenting himself as 'victim' 

Opposition parties accuse Mas of using the independence process as a smokescreen to distract attention from the allegations of illegal financing that have swirled around his party for years, without being proved.

"The last thing which a political representative should do is present himself like a victim," Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told a news conference in Madrid following a weekly cabinet meeting.

If is in proven that commissions were charged in exchange for public works projects "all citizens were harmed" and Mas should respect judicial decisions in the case, she added.

The Convergence party was already under investigation for alleged illegal financing as part of another corruption scandal that erupted in 2009.

The founder of Convergence, Jordi Pujol, who ruled Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, resigned all his honorary positions last year after admitting he had kept an undeclared fortune in tax havens for over three decades.

Six of his seven children are also under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes to help companies secure public contracts while their father was in power.

Mas said years of judicial investigations had not proven anything.

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