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Puigdemont to stay in Belgium for 'safety'

October 31, 2017

The ex-Catalan leader's lawyer said he would not return to Spain to testify before the high court but might answer questions from Belgium. An arrest warrant would bar Puigdemont from standing in the December election.

Carles Puigdemont at a press conference in Brussels
Image: Reuters/Y. Herman

Puigdemont refuses to return

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is due to appear before Spain's High Court this week along with 13 other former members of the Catalan government after being accused of rebellion and sedition. 

However, on Wednesday his lawyer Paul Bekaert said "(He) is not going to Madrid and I suggest that they question him here in Belgium."

"It is possible, but I don't know yet if it happens, but it is possible. I have already had cases like that in the past, when suspects could be questioned in Belgium," Bekaert said.

Catalan president's lawyer: 'Puigdemont could be questioned in Belgium'

If Puigdemont fails to appear before the court, an arrest warrant could be issued that would in turn prevent him from standing in the regional election called by the Spanish government for December 21.

Seeking guarantees

Puigdemont on Tuesday said he woulf return to Spain if he received certain guarantees, noting that he left for Brussels because it is the capital of Europe where he can act in "freedom and safety" and not to specifically apply for asylum.

"The situation is developing every day. Here we have better guarantees for our rights and we can meet our obligations from here," Puigdemont said.

Read more: Catalonia: 'Spain's Rajoy will not make concessions to anyone'

"If they 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."

'Long road'

Puigdemont added that he will accept the challenge of snap elections slated for December. But he urged Spanish authorities to accept the results of the election, saying pro-independence forces could once again come into power in the region.

Spain wants Catalonia "to abandon our political project, and they won't achieve it," Puigdemont said. "I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory."

Read more: Catalan independence: What you need to know

According to a new poll conducted by Catalan authorities, 48.7 percent of Catalans said they wanted an independent state of Catalonia, compared to 43.6 percent who responded with "No."

Positive reception in Madrid

Shortly after Puigdemont's statement, Madrid's chief representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, said the former Catalan leader's remarks were received well in the capital.

"It means the acceptance of the return of the democratic legality," said Millo. "They are showing that they are public servants that respect the law and democracy, as they should."

In Spain, authorities have moved quickly to curb the growing political crisis. Spain's Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended Catalonia's declaration of independence, while Spanish prosecutors announced on Monday they were seeking charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against Puigdemont.

The Catalan parliament's declaration of independence prompted the central government to move on a Senate demand to impose direct rule on the region. Puigdemont, however, claims that he and his former government have the right to pursuit independence following a controversial referendum earlier this month.

'Reciprocal trust'

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said his country would be surprised if Brussels granted Puigdemont political asylum, saying there was a level of "reciprocal trust" concerning the rule of law between EU member states.

Read more: In Catalonia, language and identity go hand in hand

"It would be surprising that he could receive the right to asylum under the current circumstances," Dastis told Spanish Cadena SER radio. Accepting a request for asylum "would not be a situation of normality" in relations between the EU countries, he added.

Belgium's prime minister denied that Puigdemont had been welcomed by his government.

"The Belgian government has not taken a single step to encourage Mr. Puigdemont to come to Belgium," said a statement from Prime Minister Charles Michel's office. "The Belgian government has repeatedly called for a political dialogue to solve the crisis in Spain."

Belgium allows citizens of other EU countries to submit a request for asylum on political grounds. Belgian authorities have previously accepted asylum applications from members of the outlawed Basque separatist group ETA.

ls/jm (Reuters, AP, AFP, EFE)