By Raquel Castillo and Rodrigo De Miguel
MADRID (Reuters) – A Spanish judge ordered nine Catalan secessionist leaders to be held in custody on Thursday pending a potential trial over the region’s independence push.
The lawyer for ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said a warrant had also been issued for his client’s arrest – though the statement was dismissed by a senior official in Spain’s High Court. The reason for the differing accounts was not immediately clear.
In an short address broadcast by Catalan regional television TV3, Puigdemont called for the release of “the legitimate government of Catalonia”, a call echoed by hundreds of people gathered outside the Catalan parliament.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked Puigdemont and his government last week, hours after the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence – a vote boycotted by the opposition and declared illegal by Spanish courts.
Puigdemont later traveled to Belgium with four associates and ignored an order to appear before the High Court to answer charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds relating to the region’s secessionist drive.
“Mr. Puigdemont will stay here. He has said that he will fully cooperate with Belgian authorities during the procedure,” lawyer Paul Bekaert told Belgian state broadcaster VRT.
He said Puigdemont had told him a European arrest warrant has been issued, though the court source said that would most likely happen on Friday.
The detention of the secessionist leaders and Puigdemont’s flight to Belgium make it difficult for leading figures from the independence movement 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. His flight appears to have cost some support for his cause at home.
“President, enough is enough,” the influential Catalan newspaper el Peridico, which has been skeptical of the case for independence, said on its front page on Wednesday.
Ebelio Ramos, a pensioner from the pro-independence town of Berga said: “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 fulfill 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.”
“CAREFULLY DESIGNED SECESSIONIST PROCESS”
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.
Several hundred people took part in another protest called after the nine leaders were ordered held in custody, many fewer than the hundreds of thousands who staged several demonstrations for independence over the last two months.
Cracks have appeared within the pro-independence coalition of center-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 divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain.
In Madrid, 20 secessionist leaders had been summoned by two separate courts to testify over their role in holding a banned Oct. 1 referendum on secession and later proclaiming independence from Spain. With Puigdemont and four others in Belgium, only 15 turned up.
All the members of the dismissed Catalan cabinet but one declined to answer questions from the state prosecutor and the High Court judge, who opened an investigation that could take several years before any potential trial.
“The defendants have played an active role by propelling the carefully designed secessionist process and overcoming all kinds of obstacles that could make them deviate from their final objective,” the judge said in the ruling that sent the defendants to jail.
She said the defendants, who could face jail sentences of up to 50 years, must be held in custody because they were a flight risk and could destroy evidence.
One of them, Santi Vila, who stepped down from the Catalan cabinet before a unilateral declaration of independence last Friday and has since then been pushing for a negotiated solution with the government, was granted bail of 50,000 euros ($58,300).
A lawyer for several of the jailed Catalan leaders said they would appeal against the judge’s decision.
“The decision to hold them in custody is absolutely disproportionate as we consider the charges of rebellion and sedition lack any ground, no matter how much the prosecution insists on affirming it,” lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas said.
Five senior regional lawmakers and the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, were 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.
(Additional reporting by Jesus Aguado in Madrid and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Julien Toyer; Editing by Ralph Boulton, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)