Wednesday

22nd Aug 2018

Puigdemont stays free, Belgium at centre stage of Catalan crisis

  • Puigdemont in a video shot in Brussels last week. He cannot leave the country without a judge's consent

Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont was put under judicial supervision in Brussels on Sunday (5 November) after he turned himself in to the police and had a ten-hour hearing with a judge.

Puigdemont, as well as four other former members of the Catalan government in Belgium with him, will have to stay in the country, live at a 'real address' and go to the judge whenever they are asked. They will be heard again by a judge within 15 days.

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All are under a European arrest warrant that was issued by a Spanish judge on Friday.


Thirteen members of the Catalan government that was dismissed by the Spanish government are charged with rebellion, sedition and embezzlement over Catalonia's declaration of independence on 27 October.

Puigdemont, who fled Spain last Monday and said he would not come back as long as he would not have "guarantees" for a "fair trial", said before his surrender that he would "cooperate" with the Belgian justice, which he called a "real justice".

In an interview with the RTBF TV channel on Friday, he said that the Spanish judicial system was "politicised" and that it was "extremely barbaric" that he could face up 30 years in prison.

Eight former regional ministers have been in jail under the same charges since Wednesday.

Puigdemont told journalists last Tuesday that he came to Brussels in order to "explain the Catalan problem in the institutional heart of Europe."

But while EU institutions have not reacted to the latest events, his arrest has triggered a debate among Belgian politicians.

Interior minister and deputy prime minister Jan Jambon said he had "questions" about the situation in Spain.

"Members of a government are put in prison. What have they done wrong? Simply apply the mandate they received from their constituents," said Jambon, who is from the Flemish nationalist N-VA party.

Last week, another N-VA minister, Theo Francken, suggested that the Catalan separatist could ask for asylum in Belgium.

Jambon added on Sunday that he was "wondering what Europe is waiting for before saying something."

"I think there would be [a] different reaction if the same thing happened in Poland or Hungary," he said.

Jambon's leader, N-VA chief Bart de Wever, also indirectly expressed support for Puigdemont and the Catalan separatists.

'Franquist' Rajoy

In a message posted on Twitter on Saturday, he said that Antwerp - the city of which he is the mayor - was commemorating the 441st anniversary of the 'Spanish Fury', when he said 10,000 inhabitants of the city were killed by the troops of Spanish king Philipp II on 4 November 1576.

Elio di Rupo, the leader of the Belgian French-speaking Socialist Party and a former prime minister, said that he would be "shocked" if Puigdemont was jailed.

In a message on Twitter, he said that while the separatist leader has "abused his position", Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy "behaved like an authoritarian Franquist" - a term referring to former dictator Franco.

Both Jambon and Di Rupo were rebuffed by Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a vice president of the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament and a member of Rajoy's Popular Party in Spain.

Gonzalez Pons said in a statement that Jambon's remarks were "irresponsible and dangerous for the necessary cooperation between EU member states."

He added that Jambon had a "xenophobe record" and that it was "desirable that he doesn't give lessons in democracy."

Later on Twitter, Gonzalez Pons said that Di Rupo "should be more respectful with a country that is a friend and an ally" and that he had "lost his dignity" with his remarks on Rajoy.

Another former Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, also asked whether the decision to imprison separatist leaders was "disproportionate".

"Are there no other ways to secure that these separatist leaders receive a fair trial and a judgement?" Verhofstadt, who is the leader of the liberal Adle group in the European Parliament, wrote on Facebook.

He added it was "time for de-escalation now" in order to secure fair elections in December.

Verhofstadt's Alde group includes Spain's Ciudadanos, one of the staunchest anti-Catalan independence parties, but also Ramon Tremosa, an MEP from Catalonia who is helping Puigdemont in Belgium.

Belgian judges have two weeks to decide whether to accept Spain's demand for extradition, but Puigdemont and his four colleagues can appeal the decision.


Under the rules, a final decision must be taken within 60 days, or 90 days in exceptional cases.

The process is therefore likely to last until after Catalonia's elections on 21 December.

'Ready to be a candidate'

On Sunday, Puigdemont's PDeCAT party proposed that he leads the party's list and that pro-independence parties form a coalition, like in the previous vote in 2015.

"Let those who are deprived of liberty be able to be part of our lists," PDeCAT's general secretary Marta Pascal said, also referring to the eight former ministers who are in custody.

In his RTBF interview, Puigdemont said he was "ready to be a candidate" even from Brussels.

According to a poll published on Sunday by Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, turnout could reach 80 percent of registered voters at the December election.


Voting intentions put the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) ahead, followed by the liberal Ciudadanos, the Socialist Party and PDeCAT. 



ERC and PDeCAT, who formed the government under Puigdemont, would be the biggest group if they formed a new coalition. But they would still be two seats short of a majority.

Let Puigdemont fight elections, Nobel winner says

Spain should allow Catalonia's deposed political leaders to return freely home and participate in the upcoming December elections, Finnish former president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martti Ahtisaari, has advised.

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