MARIANO Rajoy, whose conservative government sent thousands of riot police to Catalonia to try to stop the October 2017 independence referendum, has told a court “there was no referendum”.

The remarks from the former Spanish prime minister, who was unceremoniously dumped last year in a no-confidence motion by Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE), came in his evidence yesterday at the trial of 12 independence leaders at Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid.

Rajoy said his government would not have talks about or authorise an independence referendum.

“I said that there would be no referendum and in fact there was no referendum … What was called was not a referendum … October 1 was an illegal convocation,” he said, adding that Catalan leaders knew his position: “They were fully aware that I was not going to authorise a referendum to liquidate the sovereignty of Spain.”

Rajoy went on to defend his decision to deploy National Police and Civil Guard officers to Catalonia, where they used riot batons and rubber bullets against people trying to cast their vote.

That was an “exceptional situation”, he said,

claiming that police were defending themselves and the constitution.

In answer to questions from lawyer Andreu Van den Eynde, representing former vice-president Oriol Junqueras and former foreign minister Raül Romeva, he addressed the violence in Catalonia with an attempt to distance himself from the deployment: “I have never made a decision about a police operation. This is the thing for those who set up the operations.

“If people had not been summoned to an illegal referendum, we should not have seen the injuries of some people or the agents of the bodies and security forces of the state.”

Around 1000 civilians were injured during the police operation, some seriously. The 12 accused face charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds and Rajoy said a year ago that no public resources had paid for the referendum, which he said did not happen.

Yesterday, he said: “We eliminated the budget for the referendum from the [Catalan] budget.”

Following the referendum and a declaration of Catalan independence, Rajoy took the unprecedented measure of imposing direct rule on the wealthy north-eastern region under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution.

Shortly after that he called a regional election hoping the independence drive would lose steam, but that backfired and returned a pro-independence majority to the Catalan Parliament.

This was only the second time a former prime minister has testified in Spain’s highest court. Rajoy was already Spain’s first sitting prime minister to give evidence in summer 2017 over a long-running corruption scandal that tainted his People’s Party and ultimately ended his political career.

The trial continues.