Catalonia’s ex-president Puigdemont: I’m not in Belgium to seek asylum

Catalonia's ex president

Ousted leader says he would return immediately if a fair judicial process was guaranteed in Spain, where he may face charges including rebellion.

Catalonia’s ousted president, Carles Puigdemont, has said he came to Belgium to act “in freedom and safety”, but not to seek political asylum.

Speaking at packed press conference in Brussels, Puigdemont said he would return home immediately if a fair judicial process was guaranteed.

On Monday, Spain’s attorney general called for charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds to be brought against him and 13 other separatist leaders. That request showed “a desire, not for justice, but for vengeance”, Puigdemont said.

His appearance marked a further twist in a month-long crisis triggered by an independence referendum in Catalonia on 1 October.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday how long he would stay, Puigdemont responded: “As long we consider it [necessary]. The situation is developing every day. We have better guarantees for our rights here and we can meet our obligations.”

He added: “If they [Spanish authorities] can guarantee to all of us, and to me in particular, a just, independent process, with the separation of powers that we have in the majority of European nations, if they guarantee that, we would return immediately.”

The press conference came as Spain’s constitutional court suspended Friday’s declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament, and the supreme court said it had begun proceedings against Catalonian parliamentary officials over their role in the referendum. Separately, Spain’s civil guard police force searched the headquarters of Catalonia’s regional police.

Paul Bekaert, a Belgian lawyer specialising in asylum and extradition, confirmed on Monday that he was representing the Catalan leader, but said he was not preparing any request for political asylum.
Belgium’s immigration minister, Theo Francken, a leading member of the Flemish separatist N-VA party, appeared to lay down the welcome mat when he told local media at the weekend: “If the Catalans demand asylum, Belgian law permits it.”

Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, reproached his minister for throwing “fuel on the fire” and said asylum for the Catalans was not on the agenda.

The Catalan drama threatens to be a headache for Belgium’s government, a four-party coalition of Flemish nationalists, liberals and Christian Democrats that came into office in October 2014 after five months of negotiations.

Belgian politicians are worried about damaging relations with Madrid, and some opposition politicians have accused Michel of failing to discipline his outspoken minister. “The international credibility of Belgium is at stake,” said former prime minister Elio Di Rupo.

Last Friday Catalonia’s regional parliament voted to declare independence, prompting Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to take the unprecedented step of using article 155 of the constitution to sack Puigdemont and his government and impose direct rule.

As well as taking control of the region’s civil service, police and finances, Rajoy has used the article to call elections in Catalonia to be held on 21 December.

Puigdemont said on Tuesday that he accepted the challenge of those elections “with all our strength” and that Catalan nationalists would vote. Spain wants Catalonia “to abandon our political project, and they won’t achieve it”, he said.

He blamed Madrid for the impasse, pinpointing the start of the crisis to the heavy-handed police response to the referendum he organised in defiance of Spanish law. “The chaos started on 1 October with violence on the Spanish side,” he said.

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