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Catalan leader in Brussels as Spain files rebellion charges

October 30, 2017

Carles Puigdemont has gone to Brussels to meet with lawyers, causing speculation that he will claim asylum there. Puigdemont and several allies have been charged with rebellion, facing prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Spanien Staatsanwaltschaft erhebt Anklage gegen Puigdemont
Image: Getty Images/D. Ramos

Former Catalonian regional leader Carles Puigdemontand five aides went to Brussels on Monday to meet with his lawyers, according to government sources. The revelation came as prosecutors in Madrid charged the 54-year-old and several associates with rebellion, sedition and embezzlement. Rebellion alone carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

Read more: Is Carles Puigdemont living in a parallel world?

Belgian lawyer Paul Beckaert, who specializes in asylum issues, confirmed on Monday evening that Puigdemont was in Belgium and that he had taken on the former regional president as a client. Beckaert would not say whether he was working with Puigdemont on an asylum claim.

"I can confirm Carles Puigdemont has appointed me as his legal representative, as he is currently in Belgium," Beckaert told Reuters in a telephone conversation. "I'm his lawyer in case he needs me. At the moment there are no specific dossiers I am preparing for him."

Read more: Soraya Saenz de Santamaria: Spain's woman in Catalonia

Bekaert also represented Luis Maria Zengotitabengoa, a suspected member of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, whose extradition from Belgium to Spain was authorized in 2010.

According to Attorney General Jose Manuel Maza, Puigdemont and other Catalan lawmakers "have created an institutional crisis that culminated in the unilateral declaration of independence and a complete disregard for our Constitution on October 27."

Asylum in Belgium?

Belgian Asylum State Secretary Theo Francken said over the weekend that it would be "not unrealistic" for Puigdemont to launch an asylum claim in the Belgian capital.

Spain has formally dissolved the Catalan parliament, which declared independence on Friday after an escalating battle of wills with Madrid over the future of the prosperous region.

Pro-independence lawmakers showed no sign of backing down, however, even as it remained uncertain whether or not security services would be called in to keep them from entering their offices.

"Mr. Rajoy, we will see you at the ballot boxes," said Marta Pascal, party coordinator of the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

New regional elections have been called for December 21. PDeCAT officials have said that Puigdemont intends to run again.

Worst crisis in decades

Spain is in the throes of its worst political crisis since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco after an independence referendum in Catalonia this month resulted in a resounding "yes" from those who took part in the vote to secede from Madrid's power.

The vote was marred by an attempt by the central government to have security services block polling stations, and has been noted for its low turnout. This did not stop Puigdemont making — and then suspending — a controversial declaration of independence on October 16. After days of political deadlock in which Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy demanded Puigdemont walk back the claim, the Catalan president eventually refused to do so.

Things came to a head on Friday, when the Catalan parliament voted in favor of seceding from Spain. The Spanish Senate responded by triggering Article 155 of the country's constitution, allowing Madrid to suspend Catalonia's autonomy and fire Puigdemont's government.

Whether Puigdemont and his allies will stay in Brussels remains to be seen, but should they be extradited to Spain, some of the charges that await them carry sentences of up to 30 years in prison.

amp, es/kl (AP, AFP, dpa)