BRUSSELS (AFP) – Catalonia’s axed separatist leader said Tuesday (Oct 31) 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.
Calling himself the “legitimate” Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont told a packed news conference he was in Brussels “for safety purposes and freedom” and to “explain the Catalan problem in the institutional heart of Europe.”
“We want to denounce the politicisation of the Spanish justice system, its lack of impartiality, its pursuing of ideas not crimes, and to explain to the world the Spanish state’s serious democratic deficiencies,” he said.
The 54-year-old, whom Spanish prosecutors want to charge with rebellion – punishable by up to 30 years in jail – and sedition, denied, however, that he would seek legal protection from Belgium.
“I am not here in order to demand asylum,” Puigdemont said.
The media-savvy and floppy-haired former journalist did not detail how long he intended to stay but said that other members of his “legitimate” government would remain in Catalonia to “carry out political activity”.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said that Puigdemont – who has said he is ready to go to prison rather than give up on independence – “will be treated like any other European citizen”.
The Belgian leader was at pains to stress that his government had “not undertaken any step to encourage Mr Puigdemont’s arrival on Belgian soil”.
MOTORWAY TO MARSEILLE
After being axed on Friday, Puigdemont 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 dramatic twist in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia’s drive for independence that has presented Spain with its biggest political crisis in decades.
With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy and 16 per cent of its population, is deeply divided over independence.
On Oct 1, Catalonia held an unregulated referendum – marked by a heavy-handed operation by Spanish police – that saw a large majority in favour of seceding from Spain Turnout was just 43 per cent, however, and Spain’s top court ruled the plebiscite illegal.
Puigdemont insists 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 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.
Previously, the region had a high degree of autonomy over key sectors such as education, healthcare and the police.
On Tuesday, Spain’s top court ordered the suspension of the Catalan parliament’s independence declaration.
Spain’s Civil Guard police force meanwhile searched the headquarters of Catalonia’s regional police in a probe centred on the independence referendum, a spokesman said.
Spain’s Supreme Court summoned the former speaker of the Catalan parliament to charge her.
The international community including the European Union, struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and backed Rajoy.
There had been speculation that Catalan leaders and civil servants might seek to disrupt Madrid’s imposition of direct rule but it passed off without major incident.
“We haven’t come across a single civil servant who isn’t doing his or her duty,” Enric Millo, a central government representative in Catalonia, said Tuesday.
But it appears that the crisis has converted more Catalans into independence supporters.
A regional government opinion poll carried out in October showed there are more Catalans who favour independence than not.
Carried out in October, it showed 48.7 per cent of respondents said they wanted a separate state against 43.6 per cent who didn’t. In the last such poll conducted in July, those against independence were close to 50 per cent versus 41.1 per cent in favour.
Still, a former Catalan minister, Santi Vila, told Catalan radio Rac1 on Tuesday that Puigdemont’s government had been “under the illusion” that it would be easy, and that the independence drive “could take place rapidly and without damage.”
Puigdemont said in Brussels that he did not want to put Catalan civil servants in a “difficult situation” and that the independence drive should “slow down” to avoid unrest.
Rajoy has called snap elections for Dec 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. He urged Madrid to do the same if separatists retain their majority.