Saturday 21 September 2019

Belgium hopes to act on warrant for hiding Catalan leader Puigdemont

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium after he was ousted (AP)
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium after he was ousted (AP)

The ousted leader of Catalonia remains the subject of a European arrest warrant as questions mount over how long he will elude the Spanish justice system by staying undercover in Belgium and delaying extradition.

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and several members of his separatist government fled north to Brussels after Spanish authorities removed the region's senior officials from office a week ago.

It is thought that Puigdemont and four others are still in Belgium, but sources close to them would not reveal their whereabouts.

Puigdemont wrote in Dutch on his Twitter account Saturday that he would "co-operate" with Belgian authorities, although his lawyer has said the pro-independence politician would fight a forced return to Spain.

"We are prepared to fully co-operate with Belgian justice following the European arrest warrant issued by Spain," Puigdemont wrote.

Prosecutors in Brussels said they were examining the arrest warrants for Puigdemont and four of his associates and hope to launch extradition proceedings as soon as possible.

Federal prosecutors in Belgium shared the warrants with their city counterparts due to links the five politicians from Catalonia have to Brussels, a statement from the capital's prosecutors' office said.

The statement did not explain what those links are. Puigdemont spoke at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday and appeared on Belgian state television on Friday.

Puigdemont also sent a Twitter message in Catalan to political followers in north-eastern Spain. He weighed in on a debate among secessionists in Catalonia regarding strategy for the December snap election Spain's government has called as part of its temporary takeover of the region.

"It's the moment for all democrats to unite. For Catalonia, for the freedom of political prisoners and the Republic," Puigdemont wrote, endorsing calls for pro-secession political parties to unite in a coalition for the election.

Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said on Friday that politicians, even those who are jailed on suspicion of a crime, can run in the election unless they are convicted before it takes place. Puigdemont has left the door open to running.

In Barcelona, the government seat of Catalonia, pro-union parties criticised Puigdemont for his flight to Europe's capital 662 miles away.

Albert Rivera, leader of the liberal Citizens party, said Puigdemont had got what he asked for when he pushed ahead with plans for secession despite warnings from Spanish authorities that he was breaking the law.

"Mr Puigdemont, wherever you are, come back to Spain and show your face before the law," Mr Rivera said. "When you once bragged about flouting the law, you cannot now be indignant when a judge opens an investigation into your acts."

Miquel Iceta, leader of Catalonia's Socialists, said at a separate rally: "We have members of the government in prison, and others in Brussels trying to avoid the law. This is time to build bridges, not raise frontiers."

Puigdemont and the four former ministers are being sought for five crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, for their roles in pushing regional lawmakers to declare independence from Spain.

But the longer he can delay his arrest and extradition, the greater chance he would have of being a factor in the December 21 election.


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