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Spain Issues Arrest Warrant For Ousted Catalan Leader

Carles Puigdemont is currently in Belgium.

04/11/2017 6:47 AM AEDT | Updated 04/11/2017 11:36 AM AEDT
Yves Herman / Reuters
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont will need to return from Belgium.

MADRID/BRUSSELS, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Spain on Friday issued an arrest warrant on sedition and other charges for former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who went to Brussels after his government was sacked following a declaration of independence.

A Madrid High Court judge asked Belgium to arrest Puigdemont and four associates after they ignored a court order to return to Spain on Thursday to answer charges of rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust relating to their secessionist campaign.

The judge rejected a request from the former Catalan leader, who is considering standing in a snap election in Catalonia next month, to testify via video conference from Belgium.

Puigdemont has said he did not trust Spanish justice but would cooperate with the Belgian courts. Belgium will have a maximum of three months to decide whether to send him back to Spain.

On Thursday, nine members of Puigdemont's sacked cabinet were ordered by the High Court to be held in custody pending an investigation and potential trial.

Thierry Monasse via Getty Images
Dismissed Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont has called for "democratic opposition".

"We consider ourselves a legitimate government," Puigdemont told Belgian state television RTBF on Friday. "There must be a continuity to tell the world what's going on in Spain... It's not with a government in jail that the elections will be neutral, independent, normal."

"...I am ready to be a candidate... it's possible to run a campaign from anywhere," he added, referring to the election called by authorities in Madrid when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took over Catalonia.

In protest at the jailings, Catalan civic groups Asamblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural -- whose leaders were imprisoned last month on sedition charges -- called for a general strike on Nov. 8 and a mass demonstration on Nov. 11 .

Another six Catalan leaders are due to testify on Nov. 9 on the same charges.

One member of the dismissed cabinet, Santi Vila, was released after paying bail of 50,000 euros ($58,300) on Friday. The other eight were not given bail and could remain in custody for up to four years.

JOSEP LAGO via Getty Images
Protesters hold signs reading 'Freedom to political prisoners' during a demonstration in Barcelona.

Vila stepped down from the Catalan cabinet before Friday's independence declaration, and while he remains a supporter of an secession he has been advocating a negotiated solution with the central government.

He has said he wanted to stand as the leading candidate for Puigdemont's PdeCat (Catalan Democratic party) in the regional election.

NEW BOOST

The detention of the secessionist leaders and Puigdemont's flight to Belgium have given a new boost to the secessionist camp after cracks appeared in its ranks.

Thousands of people staged pro-independence protests on Thursday night in several Catalan towns, and parties forming the current coalition Junts Pel Si (Together For Yes) are pushing to run again on a joint ticket at the Dec. 21 election.

An opinion poll published on Tuesday showed Junts Pel Si would win the December election with 35.2 percent if the vote was held today and would likely reach a parliamentary majority if it stuck with its current pact with far-left party CUP.

Getty Images
Former members of the Catalan Government attended Spain's National High Court.

Facing such a prospect, the Spanish government said on Friday it would have no option but to open talks within the law with those who held a majority.

"We could offer a new dialogue so that we can fulfill Catalans' aspirations for more autonomy and look into reforming the constitution," Foreign Affairs Minister Alfonso Dastis told French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview.

"Some even mention the idea of a federal model so that regions can have more autonomy, including financially." (Additional reporting by Jesus Aguado and Paul Day in Madrid; Writing by Julien Toyer; Editing by John Stonestreet)

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