People hold candles and a Catalan pro-independence ‘Estelada’ flag during a demonstration in Barcelona against the arrest of two Catalan separatist leaders on October 17, 2017. Catalonia braced for protests after a judge ordered the detention of two powerful separatist leaders, further inflaming tensions in the crisis over the Spanish region’s chaotic independence referendum. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA
A judge in Madrid was set Friday to issue 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, was expected 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 waving Catalan flags and chanting in anger over the detentions.
Puigdemont, 54, 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, will issue the warrant “during the day Friday,” 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.
– ‘Dictatorship not justice’ –
Late Thursday, 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 — red and yellow stripes with a white star — 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 as well as in Catalonia,” retiree Josep Manel Boix, 63, told AFP.
– Boycotting in Belgium –
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.
Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert, who has helped Basque separatists militants challenge Spanish extradition, said his client did not see the climate as “conducive to testifying”.
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.
– Rubber bullets –
The crisis flared up over the staging of a Catalan independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban. Spanish police tried and failed to stop it, in some cases firing rubber bullets.
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 and calling December 21 elections there.
The 7.5 million people of Catalonia, which until this week had considerable autonomy, are fiercely proud of their language and culture but are in fact deeply divided about the wisdom of independence.
Spain’s central bank warned Thursday of a possible recession in Catalonia. Unemployment there rose strongly in October. More than 2,000 firms have moved their legal headquarters elsewhere.
There are signs of growing divisions among separatists, with many unhappy with Puigdemont.
Peter Ceretti at the Economist Intelligence Unit said there is a “serious risk” that pro-independence parties will win the December election, with the ministers in prison “important propaganda”.