Reuters International

An "estelada" (Catalan separatist flag) hangs from a pole in Cabrera de Mar, north of Barcelona, Spain, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

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MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish court on Tuesday recommended that Catalonia's former leader be tried for staging a mock independence referendum in 2014 in breach of a legal order, potentially fuelling separatist discontent in the wealthy northeastern region.

Catalonia is home to a strong separatist movement, and in November 2014 pro-independence campaigners held a non-binding vote on whether to break away from Spain while Artur Mas was regional governor.

Strongly opposed to Catalonian secession, the central government in Madrid had earlier lodged an appeal against the referendum at the constitutional court. The court ruled that Mas's government could play no part in the vote, even though he supported it.

Held two months after Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, the symbolic ballot was manned by volunteers to get around the restrictions.

However, a court in Catalonia ruled there was evidence that Mas had failed to stop his administration from hiring third parties to manage the vote and had overstepped his authority.

It recommended that Mas and two other former ministers stand trial. Under Spanish law prosecutors and claimants now have the last word on whether the trial should proceed, though it is rare for cases to be withdrawn at this stage.

Mas stepped down earlier this year and was replaced by another pro-independence leader, Carles Puigdemont.

The case could stoke tensions between Barcelona and Madrid, where the conservative People's Party, which strongly opposes Catalan independence, is running a caretaker government following two inconclusive general elections.

A spokeswoman for the Catalan government told a news conference on Tuesday that the case against Mas and the former ministers was politically motivated.

Separatist parties in the region won a majority of parliamentary seats in local elections last September, albeit without winning 50 percent of the vote.

The local Catalan government has since vowed to press ahead with a "roadmap" to independence, though it still unclear how it can deliver on this pledge.

About 81 percent of those who participated in the mock referendum in 2014 backed independence from Spain, though less than half of eligible voters turned out.

(Reporting by Rodrigo de Miguel; Writing by Sarah White; Editing by Dave Graham and Gareth Jones)

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