BRUSSELS • Spain's top criminal court has summoned Catalonia's axed separatist leader for questioning, hours after he appeared in Brussels insisting he remained the "legitimate president" of a region now under direct rule from Madrid.
The National Audience in Madrid, which deals with major criminal cases, summoned 54-year-old Carles Puigdemont and 13 other former members of his administration dismissed by Spain's central government last week to appear today and tomorrow.
They are then set to be placed under formal investigation after Spain's chief prosecutor earlier this week said that he was seeking charges of rebellion - punishable by up to 30 years behind bars - sedition and misuse of public funds.
But Mr Puigdemont is in Brussels, where he surfaced after reportedly driving to Marseille in France and taking a plane to the Belgian capital.
At a packed and chaotic news conference on Tuesday, Mr Puigdemont said he was in Brussels "for safety purposes and freedom" and to "explain the Catalan problem in the institutional heart of Europe".
He denied that he intended to claim asylum but said he and several other former ministers who travelled with him would return only if they have guarantees that legal proceedings would be impartial.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said that during Mr Puigdemont's time in the country he would be "treated like any other European citizen" with "the same rights and responsibilities".
Two former Catalan ministers flew back to Barcelona late on Tuesday and were greeted by a small group of demonstrators who waved Spanish flags in their faces and shouted "traitors!" and "Viva Espana!" at them.
If Mr Puigdemont fails to appear in court as requested, Spanish prosecutors could order his arrest - something his Belgian lawyer, Mr Paul Bekaer, has cited as a reason for him not returning home.
The National Audience also gave Mr Puigdemont and his former ministers three days to pay a combined deposit against potential penalties of €6.2 million (S$9.8 million).
Mr Puigdemont's departure and the court's announcement are the latest twists in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia's drive for independence, which sparked Spain's biggest political crisis in decades.
The crisis was triggered by an independence referendum held in Catalonia on Oct 1. Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half of Catalonia's eligible voters took part, the regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.
But Spain's top court had ruled the plebiscite illegal, and the reaction from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government was swift and emphatic. Invoking a never-before-used article of the Constitution, Madrid dismissed Catalonia's leaders and imposed direct rule.
The United States, Britain, Germany and France have all backed Mr Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.
Mr Rajoy has called snap elections on Dec 21 to replace the Catalan Parliament in a drastic bid to stop the secessionist drive. Mr Puigdemont said that he accepted the "challenge" and that he would "respect" the result - while calling on Madrid to do the same if separatists retained their majority.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS