Spain likely to seek arrest of Puigdemont

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A sign reads ‘Democracy’ during a protest in Barcelona yesterday. AFP

MADRID (Reuters) – Spanish courts are likely to issue a European arrest warrant for former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, now in Belgium, after he failed to appear at a hearing yesterday, Spain’s top judge said.

Other leaders of the independence drive, that has brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Barcelona both for and against a break with Madrid, faced a Spanish court and prosecution demands they be held in custody.

Mr Puigdemont’s lawyer in Belgium, where he has travelled with four members of his sacked cabinet, said the climate in Spain was “not good” and his client wanted to maintain some distance; but he would cooperate with the courts.

“If they ask, he will cooperate with Spanish and Belgian justice,” lawyer Paul Bekaert said.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked Mr Puigdemont and his government, last Friday, hours after the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence – a vote boycotted by the opposition and declared illegal by Spanish courts.

Mr Puigdemont said on Wednesday he would ignore a court order to return to Spain to answer charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds relating to the region’s secessionist push. He did not turn up at a High Court hearing yesterday.

“When someone doesn’t appear after being cited by a judge to testify, in Spain or any other EU country, normally an arrest warrant is issued,” said Supreme Court President Carlos Lesmes who is also the head of the General Council of the Judiciary, Spain’s top judicial body.

An arrest warrant would make it virtually impossible for Mr Puigdemont to stand in a snap election in the wealthy region called by the Spanish government for December 21.

Mr Puigdemont said on Tuesday he would go back to Spain only if given unspecified guarantees by the Spanish government, puzzling many Catalans who now think he has acted precipitously.

“President, enough is enough,” said the influential Catalan newspaper el Peridico on its front page on Wednesday.

Ebelio Ramos, a pensioner from the pro-independence town of Berga, said he was bemused by Mr Puigdemont’s flight.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking about but when someone does what he did and declares independence and then flees… A president has to fulfil the law and if he doesn’t, it is better that he stays calm, because if he starts doing something outside the law, he is going to lose everything,” Mr Ramos said.

A decision on a European warrant will be taken by a High Court judge following the testimony of the remaining nine members of Mr Puigdemont’s sacked cabinet, including former vice-president Oriol Junqueras.

Five senior regional lawmakers and the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, were also summoned by the Supreme Court, which handles the cases of people who enjoy parliamentary immunity.

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to give one more week to Mr Forcadell and the Catalan lawmakers to prepare their defence and a new hearing will take place on November 9.

All the members of the dismissed Catalan cabinet but one declined to answer questions from the state prosecutor and the High Court judge who is expected to open an investigation that could take several years and potentially lead to a trial.

The prosecutor asked the judge to remand the Catalan leaders in custody pending an investigation into their role in an illegal push for independence, a source with knowledge of the matter said. The judge was expected to rule on this request last night.

She might also grant them conditional bail or order them to surrender their passports.

The courts have already told the Catalan secessionist leaders to deposit €6.2 million ($7.2 million) by today to cover potential liabilities.

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