Spanish court threatens deposed separatist Catalan leader with arrest


MADRID: The deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, could face an arrest warrant if he fails to appear in court to testify over his part in last week’s declaration of independence, the president of Spain’s supreme court said on Thursday.

Puigdemont, who is currently in Brussels, has been summoned to attend Spain’s national court to give evidence on Thursday and Friday. He and 13 other members of his ousted administration could be charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds over the Catalan parliament’s decision to declare regional independence last Friday.

“When someone doesn’t appear after being cited by a judge to testify, in Spain or any other EU country, normally an arrest warrant is issued,” said Carlos Lesmes, president of the supreme court.

Puigdemont’s lawyer said his client intended to remain in Brussels.

“The climate is not good, it is better to take some distance,” Paul Bekaert told Reuters on Thursday. “If they ask, he will cooperate with Spanish and Belgian justice.

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News of the possible arrest warrant came as prosecutors asked the national court to jail eight ex-members of the fired Catalan government. The judge has yet to decide on the request.

Members of the separatist government began arriving to testify in Madrid early on Thursday morning. The hearing at the national court, which deals with major criminal cases, began at 9am and will continue on Friday.

Catalonia’s former vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, was the first to arrive at the court. He went in accompanied by lawyers, passing by dozens of journalists, and declining to answer questions.

Assumpció Lailla, a former politician with Catalonia’s Democrats party, said she had travelled to Madrid joining about 100 other politicians and elected officials to show support to those investigated in the rebellion investigation.

“This is an unjust situation in which they are being investigated for facilitating democracy,” she told Associated Press. “I don’t understand how Europe can look away from democracy.”

Supporters outside court cheered and shouted: “Freedom, Freedom” and “we are not afraid”.

Across the street, half a dozen protesters with Spanish flags were stopped by police. Addressing the Catalan politicians, they shouted “cowards” and “to jail, to jail.”

An independence referendum on October 1 – which heavy-handed Spanish police tried and failed to stop – was followed by a declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament last Friday.

Later that day, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government dismissed the regional government and moved to impose direct rule on the wealthy north-eastern region.

On Monday, Spain’s chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges of rebellion – punishable by up to 30 years in prison – sedition and misuse of public funds against the 14.

The speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, and five parliamentary deputies were also due to be questioned over the same alleged offences, but a judge at Spain’s supreme court adjourned the hearing until next Thursday following a request from their lawyers.

Puigdemont, 54, has dismissed the accusations as politically motivated. On Tuesday he said he would remain in Brussels until he had guarantees that any proceedings would be impartial.

In a statement, he said there was a concerted effort to divide his government. Some will go before a national audience “to denounce the drive of Spanish justice to pursue political ideas”, while others “will stay in Brussels to decry this political process to the international community”, he wrote.

Puigdemont has retained the support of many in Catalonia. Maria Angels Selgas, a 60-year-old sales manager in Barcelona, said for her, Puigdemont was still the Catalan president.

“If they humiliate him then they humiliate also the more than 2 million Catalans who voted yes in the referendum,” she said.

On Wednesday, several hundred separatist supporters accompanied some of those due to appear in the Madrid court to Barcelona’s main train station, chanting “liberty” and “you are not alone”.

But Catalans remain deeply divided about independence, polls indicate.

The international community has swung firmly behind Rajoy, and uncertainty about Catalonia’s future has prompted companies to move their legal headquarters outside the region.

In addition, there are signs of growing divisions in the separatist camp, with many unhappy with Puigdemont and his handling of the situation.

Joan Josep Nuet, a Catalan parliamentary deputy due to go before the supreme court, said on Wednesday that a no-show by Puigdemont raised the risk that those who did come would be put in preventive custody.

“The attitude of the [Catalan] president and the government in recent days has been really absurd, managing only to create yet more bewilderment,” Nuet told Catalunya Radio.

Fernando Vallespin, a political scientist in Madrid, said he believed Puigdemont, a former journalist, was “more interested in obtaining media attention than escaping justice”.

“It’s a media war. The aim of [the Catalan executive] has been to try and present the Spanish state as an oppressor state and Puigdemont needs to feed this narrative,” he said.

Rajoy has called snap elections for 21 December to replace the Catalan parliament. Puigdemont said he would respect the result and appealed to Madrid to do the same.