Sacked Catalan president in Brussels amid sedition allegations

Spain’s state prosecutor seeking criminal charges against key independence leaders

The deposed president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, travelled to Belgium on Monday as the Spanish judiciary announced that it was bringing legal action against him and several of his colleagues for attempting to lead their region to independence.

Given the timing of the trip and the seriousness of the charges against Mr Puigdemont, which could lead to a lengthy jail term, there is speculation that he plans to request asylum.

Monday was the first full working day since the senate approved the Spanish government’s use of article 155 of the constitution, allowing it to introduce direct rule in Catalonia, following a declaration of independence issued by the region’s parliament on Friday.

Under the direct rule plan, prime minister Mariano Rajoy had removed from office Mr Puigdemont and his entire cabinet, putting their portfolios under the control of ministries in Madrid.

There were suggestions Mr Puigdemont would defy the Spanish government decree and attempt to return to his office in central Barcelona on Monday. However, he did not and nor did he attend a mid-morning meeting of his Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT).

Flemish nationalists

Instead, by early afternoon, reports were emerging that Mr Puigdemont had travelled to Brussels and was meeting with Flemish nationalists.

Spanish television station La Sexta and newspaper El Periódico both reported that he had travelled with five former members of his government – Joaquim Forn, Meritxell Borràs, Toni Comín, Dolors Bassa and Meritxell Serret – all of who also face legal action. They drove from Catalonia to Marseille, where they took a flight to Brussels, the media reported.

Paul Beckaert, a lawyer who has been involved in previous asylum cases between Spain and Belgium, told Spanish media that he is representing Mr Puigdemont.

Meanwhile, Lluís Llach, of the Junts pel Sí pro-independence coalition which had governed Catalonia prior to direct rule, described Mr Puigdemont as “exiled” in a Twitter post.

The Irish Times asked a senior member of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which is part of the same coalition, if the two members of that party who had travelled with Mr Puigdemont – Ms Bassa and Ms Serret – were going to ask for asylum. "Could happen," the ERC politician said. "We'll see."

On Sunday, a Belgian junior minister, Theo Francken, had said any asylum request by Mr Puigdemont in his country would be reviewed. However, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel then said no such proposal was under consideration.

Sedition charges

Shortly before the news emerged of Mr Puigdemont’s trip, the attorney general José Manuel Maza announced he was bringing charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds against the former Catalan leader and senior members of his administration. The charges stem from Friday’s declaration of independence, as well as the organisation of an outlawed referendum on secession held on October 1st.

The next step in the investigation is for those involved to attend a summons.

The only former member of Mr Puigdemont’s government who defied Madrid’s instructions by returning to his office on Monday was Josep Rull, who had been head of Catalonia’s department of territories and sustainability. He posted a picture of himself in the department on Twitter, before leaving later in the morning.

In Sant Jaume square, where the Catalan government headquarters is located, the mood was muted in the morning as a handful of pro-independence supporters waited outside the front entrance. Before news of Mr Puigdemont’s journey to Belgium emerged, Elisenda Carrasco, who wore an independence flag wrapped around her, said she expected him to attempt to enter the building.

‘Peaceful opposition’

She described herself as “very afraid” about the possibilities of direct rule, but added: “Article 155 isn’t going to change how I think. We’ll act in a way that exerts pressure and creates peaceful opposition.”

Ms Carrasco said she does not know if she will vote in Catalan elections which the Spanish government has called for December 21st under the aegis of article 155. She acknowledged that taking part would be tacit admission that Catalonia was not independent.

Both of the main pro-independence parties, PDeCAT and ERC, confirmed on Monday that they would take part in the elections. ERC spokesman Sergi Sabrià described it as “another opportunity to consolidate the republic.”