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Axed Catalan president to break silence in Brussels

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A handout picture released by the Generalitat de Catalunya shows Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont, who was officially deposed by Madrid, delivering a speech in Girona on October 28, 2017. Catalonia’s secessionist leader defiantly called for “democratic opposition” to direct rule imposed by the central government on the semi-autonomous region after its parliament declared unilateral independence. / AFP PHOTO / GENERALITAT DE CATALUNYA / Jordi BEDMAR

Catalonia’s dismissed leader Carles Puigdemont was due Tuesday to give a press conference in Brussels, with speculation swirling that he might seek asylum to escape possible rebellion charges in Spain.

That would mark a new twist in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia’s drive for independence — Spain’s biggest political crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago.

Puigdemont, dismissed by the Spanish government on Friday after Catalonia’s parliament declared independence, reportedly drove hundreds of kilometres (miles) to Marseille in France and then flew to Belgium.

Paul Bekaert, a lawyer in Belgium who has worked on asylum cases involving Spaniards from the once-restive Basque Country, said on Monday that Puigdemont had hired him but denied that his new client intended to claim asylum.

“Mr. Puigdemont is not in Belgium to request asylum,” Bekaert told Belgian television channel VRT. “On this matter, nothing has yet been decided.”

However the media-savvy and floppy-haired former journalist Puigdemont has proved unpredictable in the recent crisis.

He has said in the past he was prepared to go to prison rather than give up his push for Catalan independence.

In an interview with Catalonia’s TV3 television, the region’s dismissed vice president Oriol Junqueras, who remained in Catalonia, said Puigdemont would explain Tuesday what he was doing in Belgium.

Puigdemont on Saturday urged “democratic opposition” to the central Spanish government’s imposition of direct rule on Catalonia.

But he has kept an uncharacteristically low profile since.

He was scheduled to speak in Brussels at 1130 GMT.

Around 200 journalists were crammed into a small, hot room at the Brussels Press Club for the event, with some camera crews forced to film through a window from outside.

Rebellion
Belgium’s immigration minister, a member of the Flemish separatist N-VA party, had suggested on Saturday that Puigdemont could receive asylum but Prime Minister Charles Michel later poured cold water on the idea.

On Tuesday Spain’s foreign and justice ministers both said they were dubious about the prospects of Belgium giving Puigdemont any protection.

“We believe that among EU member states, there is a level of reciprocal trust over the fact that we are states governed by the rule of law,” Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told the Cadena Ser radio station.

On Monday Spain’s chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges including rebellion — punishable by up to 30 years in prison — and sedition against Puigdemont and fellow leading separatists.

Jose Manuel Maza said they had “caused an institutional crisis that led to the unilateral declaration of independence carried out on October 27 with total contempt for our constitution”.

A court now has to decide whether to bring charges.

Separately, Spain’s Civil Guard police force on Tuesday searched the headquarters of Catalonia’s regional police in a probe centred on the independence referendum, a spokesman said.

Direct rule
Puigdemont insists that the result of an independence referendum that took place on October 1 despite a court ban gave the region’s parliament a mandate to declare it was breaking away from Spain.

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for a fifth of the eurozone country’s economy. It had a high degree of autonomy over key sectors such as education, healthcare and the police.

Following the Catalan parliament’s independence declaration on Friday, Madrid took control of the region under a previously unused article in the Spanish constitution.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called snap elections for December 21 to replace the Catalan parliament in a drastic bid to stop the secessionist drive.

On Sunday there was speculation that Catalan leaders and civil servants might seek to disrupt Madrid’s move to impose direct rule once people returned to work on Monday.

Catalan police, now under orders from Madrid, were told they could allow the dismissed leaders to enter the government headquarters in Barcelona, but only to clear their desks.

In the end, apart from one regional minister who tweeted a photo of himself at his desk, there was no major resistance.

The international community including the European Union, struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and has united behind Madrid.



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