Spanish attorney general says Catalan separatist leaders should be tried for rebellion, but no arrest orders

Spain's Attorney-General Jose Manuel Maza at the State Prosecutor office in Madrid, Spain, on Oct 30, 2017.
Spain's Attorney-General Jose Manuel Maza at the State Prosecutor office in Madrid, Spain, on Oct 30, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

BARCELONA (NYTIMES) - The Spanish attorney general said on Monday (Oct 30) that Mr Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan leader, and other top regional officials should be prosecuted for rebellion after illegally declaring independence from Spain.

The attorney general, Mr Jose Manuel Maza, stopped short of ordering the immediate arrest of Mr Puigdemont and other separatist leaders in Catalonia, instead ordering them to appear in court in Madrid in the coming days.

In a major escalation of Spain's territorial conflict, the central government has taken charge of the region's administration, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoking emergency constitutional powers to stifle the secessionist push in Catalonia.

Regional lawmakers declared independence from Spain on Friday, prompting Mr Rajoy to fire Mr Puigdemont and his Cabinet hours later. Mr Rajoy also dissolved the Catalan Parliament, and new regional elections are scheduled for Dec 21.

At least one member of Mr Puigdemont's ousted Cabinet defiantly went to work on Monday morning, after the region's president sent a message over the weekend urging Catalans to peacefully oppose Madrid's takeover and the removal of a democratically elected regional government.

Outside the Catalan Ministry for Planning and Sustainability, officials waited to see whether the regional minister, Mr Josep Rull, who was among those fired, would try to exercise his duties as he had promised over the weekend.

Asked who he thought was now regional minister, Mr Jaume Santaeugenia, 39, a civil engineer at the ministry, said: "It's Josep Rull, there's no doubt about it."

But Mr Santaeugenia added that he would accept orders from either Mr Rull or his Madrid-appointed replacement, providing the orders were legal.

If found guilty of rebellion, Mr Puigdemont, Mr Rull and others could each face up to 30 years in prison.

The attorney general said the separatist leaders could also face other charges, including sedition, civil disobedience and misuse of public funds, after organising and holding an independence referendum on Oct 1 that had been declared illegal by the Spanish government and courts.

Mr Puigdemont's government had been flouting the Spanish Constitution since early September, when separatist lawmakers approved legislation to hold a binding referendum on independence as a key step toward statehood.

The referendum went ahead, but it was marred by clashes between the national police and Catalan citizens.

Voters overwhelmingly approved independence, but the referendum took place without legal guarantees and most Catalan opponents of independence stayed away from polling stations to protest the vote.

Mr Maza, the attorney general, had warned that Mr Puigdemont was likely to be arrested immediately if Catalonia declared independence, but the decision on Monday indicates that the authorities in Madrid are moving cautiously and want to avoid sending Spanish police officers to detain Catalan politicians on their home turf.

A Madrid judge could order prison without bail for Mr Puigdemont and others, as happened this month with two other separatist leaders, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez.

With the emergency measures taken over the weekend, Mr Rajoy opted not to appoint a caretaker leader of Catalonia. Instead, the country's deputy prime minister, Ms Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, took over the management of the Catalan administration from Madrid, and dispatched senior central government officials to Barcelona on Monday.

Mr Juan Ignacio Zoido, the Spanish Interior Minister, said on Monday that the takeover of the Catalan police force, known as the Mossos, had gone smoothly. He fired the Mossos police chief, Josep Lluís Trapero, over the weekend and appointed the deputy leader of the force, Ferran López, to the post.

"We wanted to send a message of trust to the Mossos," Mr Zoido told the television channel Antena 3. "It's important that the Mossos should recover part of a lost credibility."

Under the emergency measures allowed by Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, the provision invoked by Mr Rajoy to take control of Catalonia, the national government could replace the 17,000 officers of the Mossos with Spanish police officers.

But Mr Zoido said that "at no point did we consider eliminating the Mossos police corps".

Mr Zoido called on separatist leaders to remove their personal belongings from their offices on Monday and to leave, focusing solely on preparing for the December elections, as candidates.

On Monday morning, Mr David Oliver, 43, a lawyer at the Catalan Planning Ministry, was cautious about the implications of Madrid's takeover.

"It's a question of interpretation," he said. "Some people will say that someone in Madrid is the minister, and others will say it's the person from Catalonia."

"There is a difference between what you want and what the legal situation is," he added.

"Even though the government made a declaration of independence, there is no official document saying that the republic has been founded."

Mr Rull then slipped through a back entrance of the ministry.

"In my office, carrying out my responsibilities, which the people of Catalonia have entrusted to me," he wrote on Twitter, with a photograph showing him at his desk, with a Monday edition of a newspaper nearby.

He re-emerged about an hour later and headed to a party meeting.

Supporters of independence greeted him with a round of applause and explained that they had come "to protect the officials we have elected" and "to protect the new republic", said Mr Xavier Montagut, a member of the Committee to Protect the Referendum.

Before entering a waiting car, but without his police detail, Mr Rull told reporters that he had not removed his belongings from his office.

"Today I came to my office to carry out the work that the Catalan people entrusted to us," he said. "And now I will continue, normally, with my agenda."