By Elena Gyldenkerne
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Thousands of people turned out to support Catalan president Artur Mas as he arrived at a Barcelona court on Thursday to testify on a referendum on independence from Spain he held even after it was ruled illegal.
The regional head of the wealthy northeastern region, which has its own language and distinct culture, was indicted last month on preliminary charges of disobedience, abuse of authority and usurping authority for carrying out vote in November 2014.
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.
In the court, Mas said the referendum was a core objective of his administration and he assumed total responsibility for holding it. "I don't understand why I'm here giving explanations," local media quoted him as telling the judge.
"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 in the crowd of supporters outside the court. "I find it totally unfair that a Catalan president is judged this way."
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, facing a Dec. 20 general election, has rejected calls for a referendum on independence, saying such a vote would be against the constitution. He argues one part of Spain cannot decide what happens to the whole.
This stand has eroded support for his ruling People's Party (PP) in the region famous as the birthplace of architect Antoni Gaudi and artist Joan Miro. The PP got its worst result in a Catalan election in 20 years in a local election on Sept. 27.
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.
The "consultation of citizens", a symbolic referendum that went ahead last November despite Madrid's legal block, was set up and manned by grassroots pro-independence parties.
Close to two million Catalans voted in favor of seceding from Spain but turnout was low at around 2.23 million out of 5.4 million potential voters.
(Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Tom Heneghan)