Spain issues arrest warrant for ousted Catalan leader, aides
MADRID: A Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant on Friday for former members of the Catalan Cabinet who were last seen in Brussels, including the ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who said he was prepared to run for his old job even while battling extradition in Belgium.
The National Court judge filed the request with the Belgian prosecutor to detain Puigdemont and his four aides, and issued separate international search and arrest warrants to alert Interpol in case they flee Belgium.
Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer did not answer calls requesting comment, but has said that his client will fight extradition to Spain without seeking political asylum. Belgian federal prosecutors said they had received the arrest warrant and could question Puigdemont in coming days.
"We will study it, and put it in the hands of an investigating judge," spokesman Eric Van Der Sijpt told The Associated Press. "We are not in any hurry."
Puigdemont and the four others are being sought for five different crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement in a Spanish investigation into their roles in pushing for secession for Catalonia.
The officials flew to Brussels after Spanish authorities removed Puigdemont and his Cabinet from office on Saturday for declaring independence for Catalonia. The Spanish government has also called an early regional election for December 21.
Puigdemont told Belgian state broadcaster that he was in Belgium "ready to be a candidate" in the early polls and because he had lost faith in the Spanish justice system.
"We can run a campaign anywhere because we're in a globalized world," he told RTBF, adding that he was not in Belgium to "Belgianize Catalan politics."
"I did not flee, but it's impossible to properly prepare" a legal defense while in Spain, he told the broadcaster.
If Belgium acts on the international warrant issued by Spain and arrests him, Puigdemont would have to be brought before an investigating judge within 24 hours. His extradition procedure would take 15 days, Belgian legal experts say. But should Puigdemont appeal, that process could take a further 45 days, meaning that he would probably not leave Belgium before early January, well after the elections.
In her decision on Friday, Judge Carmen Lamela said that Puigdemont "apparently is in Belgium" and accused him of "leading the mobilization of the pro-independence sectors of the population to act in support of the illegal referendum and thus the secession process outside the legal channels to reform the constitution."
Spain says the only legal way to achieve secession is by reforming Spain's 1978 Constitution with an ample majority in the national parliament. The constitution says the country is "indivisible" and doesn't allow regional votes on sovereignty.
The arrest warrant came a day after the same judge jailed nine former members of Puigdemont's separatist government. All members of the ousted Cabinet were ordered to appear at Spain's National Court on Thursday to answer questions in a rebellion investigation. Five of them, including Puigdemont, didn't show up.
Spanish prosecutors want to charge members of the dismissed regional government —as well as six additional members of the regional parliament— for promoting official steps to declaring Catalonia's independence.
Meanwhile, a panel of National Court judges on Friday rejected an appeal seeking the release of two separatist activists who were jailed last month in a separate sedition investigation.
A National Court spokesman said the president of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, Jordi Sanchez, and Omnium Cultural leader Jordi Cuixart will remain in a Madrid jail while the investigation continues. The spokesman spoke on condition of anonymity in line with court policy.
Sanchez and Cuixart are being investigated for allegedly orchestrating protests that hindered a judicial investigation to halt preparations for a banned independence referendum held on Oct. 1.
Under Spain's legal system, investigating judges can have suspects detained while a comprehensive probe, sometimes taking months, determines if they should be charged.
Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo deflected questions by the media regarding the jailing of the Catalan officials. The separation of powers meant that the government's focus was on preparing for the early election it called for Catalonia, Mendez de Vigo said.
"What the government guarantees is that there will be elections where the parties that want to run can present their programs, and we hope that the election can end this period of uncertainty and the deterioration of harmonious coexistence in Catalonia," he said.
One of the nine jailed Catalan officials, ex-regional minister for business Santi Vila, posted bail of 50,000 euros ($58,000) and was released from custody on Friday. His passport was confiscated and Vila needs to show up in court regularly as the rebellion, sedition and embezzlement probe continues.
The other eight were held without having bail set.
"I ask for all political parties across Spain, appealing to their democratic values, to put an end to this terrible situation that has put politicians in prison," Vila said as he left the Estremera prison near Madrid.
Vila resigned in protest a day before Catalonia's parliament voted in favor of the independence declaration. He has said he wants to lead the center-right separatist Democratic Party of Catalonia in the upcoming election on a moderate platform.
Puigdemont and his Cabinet were removed by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who used extraordinary constitutional authority authorized by the Spanish Senate to depose the separatists, dissolve the regional legislature and call the early regional election.
Spain's Supreme Court is also investigating six members of Catalonia's parliament. The court postponed a hearing Thursday until next week to allow more time for them to prepare their defenses in the case.
In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.