A day after Catalonia’s deposed separatist leader Carles Puigdemont failed to appear for questioning in court for his role in the region’s independence drive, a Spanish judge has issued an arrest warrant against him. Puigdemont is currently holding up in Belgium.
The announcement of the warrant led to massive demonstrations for the second straight day, in the north-eastern region, where protesters chanted slogans and waved Catalan flags.
Spanish prosecutors want to charge Puigdemont with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
On Thursday, the 54-year-old ignored a summons to appear before the same judge in Madrid.
A EU arrest warrant was also issued for four other Catalan ministers who failed to show up and are also thought to be in Belgium, a court statement said. They, like Puigdemont, were dismissed by Spain’s central government a week ago.
On Thursday the judge had Puigdemont’s deputy and seven other deposed regional ministers jailed pending a possible trial because of a risk that they might similarly abscond.
Speaking in an interview on Belgian television channel RTBF on Friday, recorded before the widely expected warrant was issued, Puigdemont said he was not hiding from “real justice” but from a “clearly politicised” Spanish legal system.
He said he was not convinced by guarantees of a fair trial, decrying the “enormous pressure and political influence on judicial power in Spain.”
“I have told my lawyers to inform the Belgian justice authorities that I am completely at their disposal,” he said.
Belgian prosecutors said they would study the warrant and then give it to a judge.
Spain’s worst political crisis in decades flared up over the staging of a Catalan independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban. Spanish police tried and failed to stop it, in some cases firing rubber bullets.
An independence declaration by the Catalan parliament followed one week ago.
Spain’s government responded by dismissing Puigdemont’s government, imposing direct rule and calling fresh elections in Catalonia on December 21.
Twenty people including Puigdemont and the Catalan parliament speaker had been summoned for questioning on Thursday.
Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert, who has helped Basque separatist militants challenge Spanish extradition, said his client did not see the climate as “conducive to testifying”.
Late Thursday, as television footage showed police vans with flashing blue lights driving Puigdemont’s former ministers to different prisons, furious Catalans took to the streets.
About 20,000 people, according to police, demonstrated in the regional capital Barcelona, while others gathered across in towns, and thousands turned out again on Friday evening. Puigdemont has said that the situation “is no longer an internal Spanish affair”, calling on the international community to wake up to the “danger”.
But apart from Scotland’s separatist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon criticising the “jailing of political opponents”, there are no signs that other countries’ steadfast backing of Madrid is faltering.
Germany reiterated its support for the “unity and constitutional order of Spain” while a European Commission spokeswoman said it respects “fully” the independence of the Spanish judiciary.
“Spain has the rule of law and nobody can escape court decisions. There are international instruments to ensure that those who want to escape are placed at the disposal of the courts,” Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said.
The 7.5 million people of Catalonia, which until this past week had considerable autonomy, are fiercely proud of their language and culture but are also deeply divided about the wisdom of independence.
(With inputs from agencies)