Catalan independence: Carles Puigdemont in Belgium, lawyer says

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portrait of Carles Puigdemont seen through a window of the Palau de la Generalitat, 30 October 2017Image copyright
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Mr Puigdemont has left Catalonia but his portrait was still hanging in government buildings on Monday

Sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has gone to Belgium, a lawyer he has hired there says.

The lawyer, Paul Bekaert, said he had not gone into hiding and did not deny he might seek asylum.

Spain’s chief prosecutor has called for rebellion charges to be brought against him and other organisers of Catalonia’s banned independence referendum.

The Spanish central government took direct control of Catalonia on Monday, replacing sacked officials.

It suspended the region’s autonomy and called for fresh elections after Mr Puigdemont and his government declared independence last week.

Mr Bekaert said Mr Puigdemont was now in the Belgian capital, Brussels.

“He has full rights to be here, there is nothing against him at this moment,” he told Flemish public radio. Asked whether the Catalan leader was planning to seek asylum in Belgium he added: “We’re keeping all options open – nothing has been decided.”

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It is not yet known if Mr Puigdemont is considering an asylum claim in Brussels

Theo Francken, Belgium’s immigration minister, said over the weekend that an asylum application was “not unrealistic” but Prime Minister Charles Michel later said it was “absolutely not on the agenda”.

Mr Francken, a member of the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party, said last week that Catalan ministers could apply for political asylum in Belgium, adding that he had doubts over whether Mr Puigdemont and others would get a fair trial in Spain.

Political commentators in Belgium have suggested that Mr Francken’s earlier comments could be seen as an invitation to former Catalan members of parliament to seek asylum in the country.

On Monday Spanish media reported that Mr Puigdemont had met Flemish politicians in Brussels. The TV station La Sexta reported (in Spanish) that he was there with five of his sacked government’s ministers:

  • Meritxell Serret, agriculture minister
  • Antoni Comín, health minister
  • Dolors Bassa, labour minister
  • Meritxell Borrás, governance minister
  • Joaquim Forn, interior minister

Spain’s Attorney General José Manuel Maza called for rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds charges to be brought against Catalan leaders.

If found guilty of rebellion, Mr Puigdemont could face a jail term of up to 30 years.

Under the Spanish legal system, Mr Maza’s requests will be considered by a judge.

What else happened on Monday?

The working day passed off peacefully despite some officials defying instructions from Madrid not to turn up for work.

Any ministers who arrived at their offices were given hours to leave under threat of “action” by Catalonia’s regional police force, Mossos.

Madrid’s temporary move to impose direct control by invoking Article 155 of the constitution – a first for Spain – will see as many as 150 of the region’s top officials replaced.

Mr Puigdemont and his vice-president Oriol Junqueras reject the central government’s moves, arguing that they can only be removed from office by the citizens of Catalonia.

What’s next for Catalan autonomy?

Madrid has called for fresh regional elections on 21 December.

A spokeswoman for Mr Puigdemont’s PDeCAT party said it would field candidates “with conviction”. The ex-president could run in new elections if he has not been jailed by then, according to Spain’s Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis.

On Monday, Mr Dastis said he hoped the forthcoming elections would help to “restore legal governance and rule of law in Catalonia”.

How did we get here?

Spain has been gripped by a constitutional crisis since a referendum, organised by Mr Puigdemont’s separatist government, was held on 1 October in defiance of a constitutional court ruling that had declared it illegal.

The Catalan government said that of the 43% of potential voters who took part, 90% were in favour of independence.

On Friday the regional parliament declared independence.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy then announced the dissolution of the regional parliament and the removal of Mr Puigdemont as Catalan leader.

Mr Puigdemont has urged “democratic opposition” to direct rule from Madrid.

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Media captionFlags in Catalonia and what they mean

Before this, the region had one of the greatest levels of self-government in Spain.

It has its own parliament, police force and public broadcaster, as well as a government and president.

Catalans had a range of powers in many policy areas from culture and environment to communications, transportation, commerce and public safety.

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