image

Spain

Ousted Catalan leader will stay in Belgium for safety but urges supporters to ‘prepare for a long road’ to independence

Puigdemont’s announcement that he would accept the regional election on December 21 confirmed that the Madrid government had gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 9:40pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 10:31pm

Catalonia’s deposed separatist leader Carles Puigdemont said on Tuesday that he would stay put in Brussels after being dismissed by the Spanish government, but denied he would seek asylum to avoid possible rebellion charges.

“I am not here in order to demand asylum,” Puigdemont, sacked by the Spanish government on Friday after Catalonia’s parliament declared independence, told a packed news conference in Brussels.

He said he was in Belgium “for safety purposes and freedom”, without detailing how long he would stay.

After being axed, the 54-year-old reportedly drove hundreds of kilometres from Catalonia to Marseille in southern France with several members of his dismissed cabinet and then flew to Belgium.

His departure is the latest twist in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia’s drive for independence that has presented Spain with its biggest political crisis in decades.

On October 1, Catalonia held a referendum organised by Puigdemont’s administration which it said saw a large majority vote in favour of seceding from Spain, although turnout was just 43 per cent.

Puigdemont said this gave the Catalan parliament a mandate to declare independence on Friday, a decision beamed onto big screens to cheering crowds in regional capital Barcelona.

But the same day Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government in Madrid invoked a never-before-used article of the constitution to dismiss Catalonia’s leaders and impose direct rule.

I want a clear commitment from the state. Will the state respect the results that could give separatist forces a majority?
Carles Puigdemont

The international community including the European Union, struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and has united behind Madrid.

On Monday, Spain’s chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges including rebellion – punishable by up to 30 years in prison – and sedition against Puigdemont and fellow leading separatists.

Jose Manuel Maza said they had “caused an institutional crisis that led to the unilateral declaration of independence carried out on October 27 with total contempt for our constitution”.

A court now has to decide whether to bring charges.

Separately, Spain’s Civil Guard police force on Tuesday searched the headquarters of Catalonia’s regional police in a probe centred on the independence referendum, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Spain’s Supreme Court summoned the former speaker of the Catalan parliament to charge her, a judicial source said.

“I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory,” Puigdemont said.

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for a fifth of the country’s economy.

It had a high degree of autonomy over key sectors such as education, health care and the police.

Rajoy also called snap elections for December 21 to replace the Catalan parliament in a drastic bid to stop the secessionist drive.

Puigdemont said on Tuesday that he accepted the “challenge” and that he would “respect” the result whatever it is.

“I want a clear commitment from the state. Will the state respect the results that could give separatist forces a majority?” he nevertheless asked reporters in Brussels.

There had been speculation that Catalan leaders and civil servants might seek to disrupt Madrid’s move to impose direct rule but in the event it passed off without major incident.

Catalan police, now under orders from Madrid, were told on Monday they could allow the dismissed leaders to enter the government headquarters in Barcelona, but only to clear their desks.

But in the end, apart from one regional minister who tweeted a photo of himself at his desk, there was no major resistance.

On Monday, Joan Escanilla from the CSIF civil servants union said: “For now everything is very quiet. People have returned to work as normal.”