Spanish ex-mayor Rita Barbera dies amid corruption case

Member of Spain's higher house for the Popular Party (PP) and Valencia's former mayor Rita Barbera (R) arrives at the Supreme court in Madrid, Spain, to appear before a judge after she was put under formal investigation for alleged money laundering during her time as mayor of Valencia, 21 November 2016 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ms Barbera (R) denied claims that she was involved in an illegal financing network during her time as mayor, but had to give testimony in the Supreme Court on Monday

A leading Spanish senator and ex-mayor of Valencia, Rita Barbera, has died of a heart attack at 68, doctors say.

On Monday, she testified before the Supreme Court over claims of money-laundering by the ruling Popular Party (PP) during her 24 years as mayor.

Paramedics tried to resuscitate her for half an hour after receiving an emergency call from a Madrid hotel at about 07:00 local time (06:00 GMT).

The Supreme Court began investigating Ms Barbera in September.

Many of her team have been accused of corruption, but Ms Barbera denied any involvement in a suspected illegal financing network.

A lower court judge initially requested an investigation in April, but Ms Barbera's status as a senator, granting her immunity from the lower courts, meant she could only be investigated by the Supreme Court.

The investigation relates to Operation Taula, which saw 24 people arrested in January and is focused on the activities of local officials in Valencia, Alicante and Castellon.

All those held have links to the PP, the dominant political force in the region until elections brought a move to the left in May 2015, and the PP lost its absolute majority in Valencia.

'Witch hunt'

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy paid tribute to Ms Barbera, who he said "gave everything for Valencia and the Popular Party".

But a string of PP members and Ms Barbera's lawyer criticised political rivals for presuming her guilt and, they said, leading her to be "depressed and on medication".

Another leading PP member of Congress said she had suffered a "witch hunt".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption While Ms Barbera was mayor Valencia gained prominence with the construction of the City of Arts and Sciences visitor complex. She was there when its final section was opened in 2005

Ms Barbera enjoyed a long period as mayor of Valencia - winning an absolute majority in five consecutive elections between 1995 and 2011.

Under her tenure, she vowed to create a city that rivalled Barcelona. The stunning City of Arts and Sciences cultural and architectural complex and the Norman Foster-designed Congress Centre were both built during the 1990s.

But in 2015 she was voted out, and took up a seat in the Senate.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Barbera (R) with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy a year ago
Image copyright AFP
Image caption As the PP's grip on power in Valencia began to fail, the party became linked to claims of corruption. Ms Barbera is caricatured here on a banner at a protest in the city in 2013

In January 2016, Spanish authorities made a string of arrests under Operation Taula, amid evidence that PP officials in Valencia had participated in laundering money that funded past election campaigns.

Although Ms Barbera did admit making one donation of €1,000 (£860; $1,060), she denied receiving anything in return.

But while political leaders expressed their condolences, reaction to the former mayor's death was mixed. The left-wing Podemos party filed out of parliament when a minute's silence was held in the chamber.

"We regret the death of Barbera but cannot participate in a political tribute to someone whose career is marked by corruption," tweeted Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption "The full Congress begins with a minute's silence for the death of Rita Barbera," tweets @eloysuarezi, a Popular Party member of Congress
Image copyright Twitter
Image caption "Sad. A political benchmark and the best mayor of Valencia. My condolences to family and friends of Rita Barbera. The city is in mourning," said @isabelbonig, leader of the Popular Party in Valencia
Image copyright Twitter
Image caption "A minute of silence in Congress for the death of Rita Barbera is a tribute to her career. We refused and we left," said @agarzon, economist and Communist Party member
Image copyright Twitter
Image caption The PP's @anadebande tweeted a picture of the Podemos deputies leaving - she was not impressed

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