Spain on alert to stop exiled Catalan leader's return

Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont at a press conference in Denmark yesterday. When asked, he did not say when exactly he planned to return to Spain.
Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont at a press conference in Denmark yesterday. When asked, he did not say when exactly he planned to return to Spain.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MADRID • The Spanish authorities are monitoring borders to make sure fugitive Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont does not sneak back into Spain to take up the presidency of the regional Parliament again, a senior minister said yesterday.

Mr Puigdemont, 55, has said he can rule from self-imposed exile in Belgium, where he fled to in October to avoid arrest for his part in organising an illegal referendum on a Catalonian split from Spain and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.

The Madrid government, however, said no one can be named or rule remotely.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said he was worried that Mr Puigdemont, who faces arrest the minute he steps back in Spain, could now try to discreetly return to the Parliament in Barcelona for a vote on his candidacy.

"We are making sure this cannot happen at the borders and within the borders, everywhere," Mr Zoido told Antena 3 TV.

The Spanish authorities were working day and night to prevent any attempt by him to return undetected, he said. "We'll make sure he cannot get in, even (when hidden) in the boot of a car," he added.

Catalan lawmakers are set to vote on Mr Puigdemont's candidacy by Jan 31.

Mr Puigdemont yesterday withdrew a request to be allowed to vote for himself by proxy, a source in his party said, without saying why he had dropped that demand or if it meant he planned to be in Parliament in person for the leadership vote.

He was visiting Denmark yesterday, his first trip outside Belgium since he arrived there in October, following his dismissal by the Madrid government and its imposition of direct rule on the semi-autonomous region.

Mr Puigdemont told a news conference in the Danish capital that a huge majority of the Catalan Parliament supported him taking up the role of regional president once more following an election last month.

"My return to Barcelona will not only be good news for Catalan people who support our cause but also for Spanish people and Spanish democracy," he said. But he did not say exactly when he planned to return to Spain when questioned on the matter.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called a new regional election last month in a bid to defuse the crisis, but his gamble failed when separatist parties won a majority, giving new impetus to the independence movement.

Mr Puigdemont, a former journalist, potentially faces decades in prison in Spain if he is convicted of the charges levelled against him, including rebellion and sedition.

Mr Rajoy has said the Madrid government would appeal to the courts and maintain direct rule of Catalonia if Mr Puigdemont was elected while abroad.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'Spain on alert to stop exiled Catalan leader's return'. Print Edition | Subscribe