Spanish prosecutor seeks arrest of ousted Catalan leader

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s state prosecutor sought a European arrest warrant for former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, now in Belgium, after he failed to appear at a High Court hearing on Thursday.

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

Puigdemont’s lawyer in Belgium, where he has traveled with four members of his sacked cabinet, said his client would stay away from Spain while the political climate was “not good”; but he would cooperate with the courts.

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

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

Puigdemont ignored an order to appear before the High Court on Thursday to answer charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds relating to the region’s secessionist push.

The state prosecutor responded by asking the court to issue a European arrest warrant. The judge is due to rule on this request later on Thursday though she is widely expected to follow the prosecutor’s recommendations.

“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 Puigdemont to stand in a snap election in the wealthy region called by the Spanish government for Dec. 21.

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 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,” Ramos said.

JAIL?

Following a tumultuous month, attention is gradually turning to the December vote. Protests taking place in central Barcelona on Thursday to support secessionist leaders as they testified in Madrid failed to attract a big crowd.

Cracks have appeared within the pro-independence coalition of centre-right and far-left parties as well as inside Puigdemont’s own PdeCat (Democratic Catalan Party) where some of his allies are now pushing for a negotiated solution with the central government.

The struggle has also divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.

In Madrid, 20 secessionist leaders had been summoned by two separate courts to testify over their role in holding an illegal vote on referendum on Oct. 1 and later proclaiming independence from Spain, but only 15 turned up. Puigdemont and four members of his sacked cabinet failed to appear.

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

The prosecutor has asked the judge to remand the Catalan leaders in custody pending the investigation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

The judge, who will rule on this request on Thursday, might also grant them conditional bail or order them to surrender their passports.

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 on Thursday to give one more week to Forcadell and the Catalan lawmakers to prepare their defense and a new hearing will take place on Nov. 9.

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

Two recent opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane.

But an official regional survey published on Tuesday showed some 48.7 percent of Catalans believe the region should be independent, up from 41.1 pct in June and the highest since December 2014.

Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Julien Toyer; editing by Ralph Boulton

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