MADRID (AFP) – The Spanish judge leading the investigation into Catalan separatists will issue a European arrest warrant on Friday (Nov 3) for ex-leader Carles Puigdemont, who has fled to Belgium, a judicial source in Madrid said.
The expected move against Puigdemont, who was dismissed last week as Catalan president by the Spanish government, comes after eight ministers of Catalonia’s deposed government were detained pending further probe into their role in the independence drive.
A source said judge Carmen Lamela will issue the arrest warrant for Puigdemont on Friday.
Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert said he expected the Spanish judiciary would subsequently send an extradition request to Belgian federal prosecutors, adding that Puigdemont would appeal if a Belgian judge approves the request.
A total of 20 people including Puigdemont and the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament were summoned for questioning on Thursday. Puigdemont and four others with him in Belgium failed to show.
Judge Lamela ordered preventive detention for those who remained because of a possible flight risk. Puigdemont’s deputy and seven other deposed regional ministers were detained for alleged sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
With television channels showing images of police vans with flashing blue lights said to be taking the former ministers to different prisons, Catalans took to the streets in anger and disbelief.
There were protests in front of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, the regional capital, with police estimating a crowd of 20,000. Others gathered outside town halls across the region including 8,000 people in both Girona and Tarragona.
Those in Barcelona held up their mobile phones like candles and waved separatist flags – red and yellow stripes with a white star – also holding black-and-yellow “libertad” (“freedom”) signs.
The crowds, who included elderly couples and young parents carrying toddlers, chanted “Free political prisoners” and “This isn’t justice but dictatorship.” “It makes you angry even when you don’t vote for independence because every time a disproportionate measure is taken, it only fuels independence,” said retired teacher Dolores, 66.
Puigdemont called in a statement broadcast on Catalan TV from an undisclosed location for the release of the ministers and said that the situation “is no longer an internal Spanish affair”.
“The international community, and especially the European community, must realise the danger these attitudes represent,” he said.
Catalan demands for independence date back centuries but have surged in recent years, in part due to a difficult economic situation.
Puigdemont’s government organised an independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban.
Spanish police tried and failed to stop it, in some cases firing rubber bullets at people defending polling stations.
A declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament followed last Friday.
But that same day, Rajoy dismissed the regional government, imposing direct rule on Catalonia and called regional elections for December 21.
Marta Rovira, a lawyer and Catalan separatist lawmaker, briefly broke down in tears as she spoke to reporters in Madrid after the announcement of the detentions.
“The Spanish state is a failed state, a state that has failed democratically,” she said. “I’m convinced we won’t surrender, we won’t, we will fight until the end.” But Catalans, fiercely proud of their language and culture, remain deeply divided about independence, polls indicate.
The European Union has swung firmly behind Rajoy. Spain’s central bank warned Thursday of a possible recession in Catalonia if the crisis continues.
In addition, there are signs of growing divisions in the separatist camp, with many unhappy with Puigdemont, particularly now he is hundreds of miles away from the region he hopes to lead to independence.