Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan premier who was ousted along with the rest of his cabinet over their illegal declaration of independence from Spain, berated the “Spanish state that attacks with runaway fury” after watching several of his ministers being taken into custody following their appearance before a High Court judge who is investigating them for sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
Behind bars, my government is infinitely more free than their deluded jailers
Former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont
Speaking from Belgium, where he took refuge on Monday, Puigdemont criticized the decision to jail his former deputy, Oriol Junqueras, and eight more officials – although one of them, former business department chief Santi Vila, currently in Estremera prison in Madrid, on Friday morning posted the bail that will allow him to avoid pre-trial detention.
In a message that was aired on the Catalan public station TV3, Puigdemont, who is depicting himself as the head of a government in exile, demanded “the immediate release” of his former ministers, and asked the “Catalan people” to fight this “most serious attack on democracy” serenely and without violence.
Around 20,000 people protested the imprisonment on Thursday evening in front of the regional assembly, according to the Barcelona police force. The demonstration was organized by ANC and Òmnium, two civic associations that have worked actively towards secession, and whose leaders, Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, are themselves in preventive custody in connection with the illegal independence referendum of October 1.
Prosecutors on Thursday also began legal proceedings to issue an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont, who failed to show up at the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s central High Court, to testify in the sedition case. The former premier was first thought to be seeking asylum in Belgium to avoid legal action by the Spanish courts, although he later denied that claim. He has retained the services of a Belgian lawyer with experience deflecting extradition requests for members of the Basque terrorist group ETA.
Puigdemont is at an undisclosed location in Brussels, and spoke before the cameras inside what appeared to be a hotel room. Using passionate rhetoric – “behind bars, my government is infinitely more free than their deluded jailers” – he continued to depict the courts’ actions against the unconstitutional secession bid as an attack against democracy, and insisted that there is no separation of powers in Spain.
Despite the lack of international support for the Catalan republic – EU Council President Donald Tusk has said that Spain continues to be the EU’s interlocutor – Puigdemont is attempting to internationalize his cause by claiming that it is Spain that is acting “outside the rule of law.”
Although EU institutions have issued no statements, leaders of nationalist parties criticized the events of Thursday. “Jailing democratically elected leaders is going too far,” said Geert Bourgeois, head of the Flanders region of Belgium. Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who heads a fragile coalition of liberals and nationalists, has asked his government members to keep quiet about the Catalan crisis.
Puigdemont also described the move to jail the former officials as “a coup against the December 21 election.”
The election was set by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy using emergency powers allowing the central government to adopt measures to force a breakaway region to obey national legislation. These measures were green-lighted by the Spanish Senate on the same day that 70 separatist deputies in the 135-seat Catalan parliament approved a document declaring independence and paving the way for a separate republic. Most of the opposition walked out in protest over an act that violated the Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy.
Puigdemont described the move to jail the former officials as “a coup against the December 21 election”
Just one day earlier, intense behind-the-scenes negotiations had nearly produced an agreement by which Puigdemont, still in power, would call early elections himself, and Rajoy would not invoke Article 155 of the Constitution.
The talks ultimately failed, and the separatist deputies went ahead with their unilateral declaration. The move triggered a demonstration by hundreds of thousands of supporters of unity on Sunday, underscoring the rift in Catalan society over the issue of independence.
English version by Susana Urra.