Former Catalan Leader Aims to Delay Facing Spanish Justice

The ousted leader of Catalonia was a wanted man after Spain issued a European warrant for his arrest — and the main question Saturday was how long he could elude the Spanish justice system by staying undercover in Belgium and delaying extradition.

Carles Puigdemont, the region’s ex-president, and several aides fled to Belgium after Spanish authorities removed the top officials in the separatist Catalan government from office a week ago. It is thought that five of them are still hiding in Belgium, though their exact whereabouts are unclear.

Puigdemont made no mention of his legal predicament in a message posted Saturday on Twitter to his political followers in northeastern Spain. Instead, he discussed strategy for the December snap election Spain’s government has called as part of its temporary takeover of Catalonia.

“It’s the moment for all democrats to unite. For Catalonia, for the freedom of political prisoners and the Republic,” he wrote, endorsing calls for pro-secession political parties to unite in a coalition for the upcoming election.

Puigdemont and the four other former ministers are being sought for five crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, for their roles in pushing regional lawmakers to declare independence from Spain despite repeated warnings that it would violate the Spain Constitution.

But the longer Puigdemont can delay his arrest and extradition, the greater chance he would have of being a factor in the Dec. 21 election that Spanish authorities have called as part of their temporary takeover of running the rebellious region.

Legal experts have told The Associated Press that the process of getting another country’s suspect turned over to face charges — from arrest to extradition, including appeals — could take about two months in Belgium.

Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said his government will have no influence over the future of Puigdemont or the other Catalan officials because the European arrest warrant “is a completely legal procedure.”

He said, unlike a normal international extradition, “the executive power does not play any role in the EAW procedure. Everything goes through direct contact between the justice authorities.”

Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer did not answer calls requesting comment on the arrest warrant but has said his client would fight extradition to Spain without requesting political asylum. Belgian federal prosecutors confirmed they received the arrest warrant late Friday and said they could question Puigdemont in coming days.

“We will study it, and put it in the hands of an investigating judge,” prosecutors’ spokesman Eric Van Der Sijpt told The Associated Press.. “That could be tomorrow, the day after or even Monday … we are not in any hurry.”

Puigdemont has said he would be willing to cooperate with the Belgian judiciary but that he had lost confidence in Spanish justice, which he claimed has become politicized.

The international arrest warrant Spain’s National Court judge Carmen Lamela signed off on Friday sparked another round of protests late Friday across Catalonia and its main city, Barcelona.

While Puigdemont and others flew to Belgium, eight members of his government stayed in Spain. Lamela questioned them on Thursday and ordered all eight jailed without bail because of what the judge said was the risk they would persist in trying to achieve secession for Catalonia while they are under criminal investigation.

A ninth former regional minister, Santi Vila, was released on bail. Vila had resigned from Puigdemont’s Cabinet in protest before the declaration of independence.

In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that could be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that Puigdemont or any other politician, even those who are jailed for suspicion of a crime, can run in the upcoming election until they are actually convicted.

In Barcelona on Saturday, a senior official of a large separatist party in Catalonia, the Republican Left, conditioned her party’s participation in the Dec. 21 elections on the release of all the jailed separatists from prison.

“If (Spain) wants democratic elections, if it wants to show that it is really democratic, it is necessary that it releases the main leaders of one of the options that will run for elections,” Republic Left general secretary Marta Rovira said. “We demand the freedom of all political prisoners, of all of them!”

Fueled by questions of cultural identity and economic malaise, secessionist sentiment has skyrocketed in recent years to reach roughly half of the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia, a prosperous region that is proud of its Catalan language spoken along with Spanish.

The separatist majority of Catalonia’s Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Oct. 27. The next day, Spain’s central government used extraordinary constitutional powers to fire Catalonia’s government and dissolve its regional parliament.

The efforts by Catalan separatists included holding an illegal referendum on secession on Oct. 1 that failed to meet international standards and was marred by a violent police crackdown. Despite that, over 2 million people voted, overwhelmingly choosing independence.

The referendum and lawmakers’ declaration of independence violated Spain’s Constitution, which says the nation is “indivisible” and that all matters of national sovereignty must be handled by the Spanish Parliament.

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Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain.

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Find complete AP coverage of Catalonia here: https://apnews.com/tag/Spain

Source: Associated Press