A judge in Madrid last night issued an EU arrest warrant for Catalonia’s deposed leader over his region’s tumultuous independence drive, in a move likely to take tensions to a new level in Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
The warrant for Carles Puigdemont, who is holed up in Belgium, came a day after a Spanish judge threw other leading figures in Catalonia’s secession push in jail pending possible trial.
Students briefly blocked roads and a railway line in Catalonia as demonstrators geared up for more protests after tens of thousands took to the streets on Thursday and Friday.
Puigdemont, 54, who was dismissed last week as Catalan president by Spain’s government, failed to show up on Thursday to be grilled by the judge over alleged sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds, accusations he calls politically motivated.
Judge Carmen Lamela, who on Thursday had Puigdemont’s deputy and seven other deposed regional ministers locked up because of a risk that they too will flee, issued the warrant, a judicial source told AFP.
“Spain has the rule of law and nobody can escape court decisions. There are international instruments to ensure that who want to escape are placed at the disposal of the courts,” government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said.
Puigdemont said on Catalan TV from an undisclosed location late Thursday that the situation “is no longer an internal Spanish affair” and called on the international community to wake up to the “danger.”
But apart from Scotland’s separatist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon criticising the “jailing of political opponents”, there were no signs that other countries’ steadfast backing of Madrid was faltering. Germany reiterated its support for the “unity and constitutional order of Spain” while a European Commission spokeswoman said it respects “fully” the independence of the Spanish judiciary.
Late Thursday night, as television footage showed police vans with flashing blue lights driving Puigdemont’s former ministers to different prisons, furious Catalans took to the streets. About 20,000 people, according to police, demonstrated in the regional capital Barcelona, while others gathered across the region. They held up mobile phones like candles, waved separatist flags and chanted “Free political prisoners” and “This isn’t justice but dictatorship.”
“There are political prisoners! This exacerbates things but this will also open the eyes of lots of people in Europe,” retiree Josep Manel Boix, 63, told AFP.
A total of 20 people including Puigdemont, Junqueras and the Catalan parliament speaker had been summoned for questioning on Thursday. Puigdemont and four ex-ministers thought to be with him in Belgium – likely also the subject of a warrant – failed to turn up.
On Friday the heads of two grassroots separatist organisations – Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez – who have been in preventive custody since October 16, lost an appeal for release. The plight of the “two Jordis”, accused of sedition for their role in disturbances in September in Barcelona, has become for many separatists emblematic of their struggle.
The crisis flared up over the staging of a Catalan independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban. A declaration of independence by the Catalan Parliament followed last Friday, but Spain’s government Rajoy responded by dismissing the regional government, imposing direct rule on Catalonia.