Some members of Catalonia's ousted government will appear before a Spanish judge Thursday for questioning in the rebellion investigation stemming from the region's declaration of independence, but the former regional president does not plan to be among them.
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A Belgian lawyer representing the sacked Catalan president said Wednesday he was seeking to have Carles Puigdemont questioned instead in Belgium. Puigdemont turned up in Brussels this week along with several of his former Cabinet members.
"He is not going to Madrid, and I suggested that they question him here in Belgium," the lawyer, Paul Bekaert, told The Associated Press. Bekaert said such an arrangement was possible, but he didn't know if Spanish authorities would accept the offer.
All 14 of the regional officials removed from office by the Spanish government face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement for driving the series of moves that culminated in Catalan lawmakers voting in favour of independence from Spain last Friday.
In a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Puigdemont said the Catalan officials who travelled to Belgium were seeking "freedom and safety."
Spain's chief prosecutor is seeking charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against Puigdemont, his ousted vice-president Oriol Junqueras and another 12 members of the now-fired Catalan government. Convictions carry potential decades-long prison sentences.
'We are facing a political trial'
The legal moves are part of the Spanish central government's implementation of extraordinary constitutional powers after Catalan lawmakers voted on Oct. 27 to secede from Spain in an escalation of what has become Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
Under that authority, the Spanish government sacked the Catalan cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and called an election for Dec. 21.
A statement issued by the ousted cabinet, which described itself as "the legitimate government" of Catalonia, said some members would travel to Madrid and appear in court to "denounce the lack of guarantees of the Spanish justice system."
The statement described the charges sought by prosecutors as "disproportionate," saying they were "equivalent to crimes such as murder or terrorism." The direction of the criminal probe demonstrates "we are facing a political trial brought by orders of the Spanish state," they said.
Puigdemont and other removed Catalan officials intend to remain in Brussels and respond to any criminal charges "according to the mechanisms foreseen in the European Union in such circumstances," the statement read without elaboration.
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The 14 have been summoned to appear in the National Court in Madrid at 9 a.m. Thursday for questioning that is scheduled to last through Friday. Separately, another six ousted Catalan lawmakers have been summoned to appear before Spain's Supreme Court in a parallel investigation of potential rebellion.
Nine of the former cabinet members were expected to appear in court as ordered. They include Junqueras, Raul Romeva, who handled the Catalan government's foreign affairs, and former government spokesperson Jordi Turull.
'An extradition petition to Belgium'
Regardless of who appears in court, an investigating magistrate could issue arrest warrants for any of those under investigation. Bekaert, Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer, told Belgian broadcaster VTM on Wednesday that if Spain seeks Puigdemont's extradition, it would be up to Belgian judges, not the government, to make a decision.
The spokesperson for Spain's ruling Popular Party, Esteban Gonzalez Pons, said if Puigdemont fails to appear in Madrid on Thursday, "there'll probably be an extradition petition to Belgium and Belgian police will detain him."
Pons told Spain's Onda Cero radio that Puigdemont's lawyer in Belgium would likely be able to prolong the case until after the Dec. 21 Catalan election.
Puigdemont said during his Tuesday appearance in Brussels that he would not return to Spain unless he and his fellow ex-government members received guarantees of "a just, independent (legal) process."
'He should have faced the truth'
Puigdemont's decision to go to Belgium instead of remaining in Catalonia was met with mixed reactions by Catalans, not all of whom supported the region's bid to break away from Spain.
Some were angry at what they perceived as a shirking of responsibilities, while others said he had no choice given Madrid's intention to bring criminal charges against him.
"This was the only solution he had," said Elena Perez as she walked up a pedestrian street in the seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltru. "The reality is that Puidgemont has his home, his family and his daughters. I think he would have rather preferred to stay at his home."
Others were not convinced.
"I was disappointed that he left to avoid prison after all the mess he has created," said Lidia Guzman, a resident of the same town. "He should have faced the truth. Madrid should not have imposed itself, but he should have faced it."
In Barcelona, about 100 people rallied at a train station in a show of support for two of the six Catalan parliament members who have been summoned before the Supreme Court.
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"One must support these people, and it looks like the way the justice system is set up they will end up in prison," Jose Pruneda, a 73-year-old pensioner in the crowd, said. "We need to pressure somehow, and the only way we know is by coming out to the streets."
Puigdemont's Democratic Party of Catalonia said a delegation from the region's former ruling coalition, Together For Yes, would travel to Madrid to support all 20 ex-government and parliament members summoned before the two courts.