Former ministers remanded in custody as prosecutors seek European arrest warrant for region’s ousted president
A judge in Madrid has ordered eight members of the deposed Catalan government to be remanded in custody pending possible charges over last week’s declaration of independence.
Carmen Lamela, sitting in Spain’s national court, jailed the eight former ministers – including Puigdemont’s deputy, Oriol Junqueras – on Thursday while they are investigated on possible charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
Spain wants revenge. But arresting Catalan leaders only gives us strength
Lamela ruled that a ninth, who resigned the day before the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence last Friday, could remain at liberty on bail of €50,000 (£44,600).
Lawyers for those under investigation said their clients would appeal against the judge’s decision, which they described as unjustified, disproportionate and predetermined.
Puigdemont, who travelled to Brussels shortly before Spain’s attorney general announced his intention to pursue the charges, had been summoned to attend the national court to give evidence on Thursday and Friday.
In a written request to Lamela, prosecutors said that Puigdemont and four other members of his administration were aware that they had been ordered to testify, but had chosen not to attend.
“Repeated attempts to deliver the summons at home and repeated phone calls have been ignored,” they said. “For his part, Carles Puigdemont has publicly stated his intention not to appear and has requested … to make a statement via videoconference, without giving any information about his current whereabouts.”
Consequently, they added, they were requesting Puigdemont be found and arrested, along with the four other regional ministers who are also in Belgium.
Late on Tuesday, Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert claimed to state broadcaster VRT that a warrant had been issued for the five Catalan politicians, but this was contradicted by a Spanish judicial source.
“I have just heard from my client that the warrant has been issued for the president and four of his ministers who are in Belgium,” he said.
“Mr Puigdemont will stay here. He has said that he will fully cooperate with Belgian authorities during the procedure,” Bekaert said.
A Spanish court source later told the Reuters news agency that this was not true.
Lamela’s decision to remand the leaders in custody on the grounds that they could be a flight risk was swiftly condemned by politicians and civil society groups in Catalonia and beyond.
Hundreds of thousands of peopletook to the streets of Catalonia last month after the same judge ordered the jailing of two prominent pro-independence leaders, Jordi Sánchez, the president of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and Jordi Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural.
Both men are under investigation for alleged sedition in the run-up to the unilateral independence referendumon 1 October.
The ANC’s vice-president, Agustí Alcoberro, said the arrested leaders were political prisoners, and tweeted: “Vice-president and ministers, we will not stop until we secure your freedom.”
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, described it as a black day for Catalonia. “A government democratically elected at the ballot box is in jail,” she said. “There is a common front to achieve the freedom of the political prisoners.”
Puigdemont reacted to the judge’s decision in a televised address on Thursday evening, in which he branded the move a “very serious attack on democracy” and a “coup against the [regional] elections” on 21 December.
Speaking as thousands of people protested across Catalonia, he said: “Imprisoning political leaders for fulfilling an electoral commitment breaks down the basic principles of democracy.”
The Catalan leader called on people in the region to protest “without violence, peacefully and with respect for everyone’s opinions”, but said Thursday’s events had shown that Catalan independence was no longer an internal Spanish matter.
“The fury with which the Spanish government has attacked a beautiful European nation is outrageous and is threatening us all,” he said.
“As a legitimate president of Catalonia, I demand the release of the ministers and the vice-president. I demand respect for all political options and an end to the political repression.”
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the anti-austerity Podemos party, said: “I’m ashamed that they lock up opponents in my country. We don’t want Catalan independence, but today we say ‘free the political prisoners’.”
A parallel supreme court session for six Catalan MPs, including Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the regional parliament, was postponed for a week following a request from their lawyers.
The nine members of the separatist government had appeared at the national court early on Thursday morning.
Junqueras was the first to arrive at the court. He entered the building accompanied by lawyers, passing by dozens of journalists and declined to answer questions.
Assumpció Lailla, a former politician with Catalonia’s Democrats party, said she had travelled to Madrid to join about 100 other politicians and elected officials to show support to those under investigation for rebellion.
“This is an unjust situation in which they are being investigated for facilitating democracy,” she told the Associated Press. “I don’t understand how Europe can look away from democracy.”
Supporters outside court cheered and shouted “freedom, freedom” and “we are not afraid”.
Across the street, police stopped a handful protesters with Spanish flags. Addressing the Catalan politicians, they shouted “cowards” and “to jail, to jail”.
Spain has been convulsed by its worst political crisis in four decades since Puigdemont’s government held the unilateral independence referendum in defiance of Spain’s government, constitution and constitutional court.
MPs in the 135-seat regional parliament voted for independence last Friday by a margin of 70 votes to 10.
Dozens of opposition MPs boycotted the secret ballot, walking out of the chamber in Barcelona before it took place and leaving Spanish and Catalan flags on their empty seats in protest.
Minutes later, the Spanish senate granted the government in Madrid unprecedented powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia under article 155 of the constitution.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, used the article to sack Puigdemont and his government and announce snap regional elections on 21 December.