Spanish prosecutors go after Catalonia's axed leaders

 30 Oct 2017 - 17:43

Spanish prosecutors go after Catalonia's axed leaders
A man sporting a Catalan typical 'barretina' hat plays guitar as other people wave Catalan flags in front of the 'Generalitat' palace (Catalan government headquarters) in Barcelona on October 30, 2017. AFP / LLUIS GENE

AFP

Barcelona: Spanish prosecutors on Monday demanded that Catalonia's dismissed leaders be charged with rebellion after the regional parliament declared independence last week and the central government in Madrid moved to take control of the region.

Upping the ante in the EU country's biggest crisis in decades, Spain's chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges including rebellion and sedition against the Catalan leaders, sacked by Madrid on Friday.

Jose Manuel Maza said the officials "caused an institutional crisis that led to the unilateral declaration of independence (by the Catalan parliament) carried out on October 27 with total contempt for our constitution".

Meanwhile, there was so far no sign of Catalonia's dismissed regional president Carles Puigdemont. A Spanish government source told AFP that the 54-year-old was in Brussels.

Rebellion is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. A court now has to decide whether to accept the case against the leaders and bring charges.

On Sunday Belgium's immigration minister suggested Puigdemont could receive asylum in Belgium on the grounds that he might not get a fair trial in Spain. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel later insisted that was "not on the agenda."

Puigdemont on Saturday urged "democratic opposition" to Madrid's effort to take control of his region.

Clear your desks 

Puigdemont maintains that the result of an independence referendum on October 1 -- outlawed by Spain's top court -- gave the wealthy northeastern region a mandate to declare it was seceding from Spain.

All eyes on Monday were on the regional government building in Barcelona -- where the Spanish flag was flying -- to see whether Puigdemont or members of his former administration would appear.

Catalan police, now under orders from Madrid, have been told they can allow the dismissed leaders to enter the government headquarters in Barcelona, but only to clear their desks.

One member of the dismissed government, Josep Rull, tweeted a photo of himself "at the office" doing his job as a regional minister. Press reports said he left again shortly afterwards.

Late on Friday the Spanish Senate gave Madrid the power to impose direct rule on Catalonia under Article 155 of the constitution, the first time this so-called "nuclear option" has been applied.

That followed the unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia's parliament the same day. Madrid took control of key powers and fresh Catalan elections were called for December 21.

A spokesman for Puigdemont's party PDeCAT said Monday that it would take part in the election. There had been speculation that it might boycott the vote.

'Psychological war'

Puigdemont's deputy Oriol Junqueras this weekend called Madrid's move a "coup d'etat", defiantly still signing off in a Catalan newspaper as the region's "vice-president".

But the international community including the European Union, struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and has united behind Madrid.

Donald Tusk, EU president, said Friday that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, 62, "remains our only interlocutor".

Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told Britain's Sky News on Sunday it was "hard to see" how Puigdemont and the others would go on government, saying that "reality is sinking in".

Sergi Sabria, a spokesperson for the separatist ERC party, appeared to agree on Monday, saying: "For now our republic is not fully able to impose itself the way that we would like."

But Sabria said that they would not give up and a separatist source described the situation as the "beginning of a psychological war" with Rajoy's government.

"What we have to do is to resist Article 155, in a symbolic manner of course, and to show that the (Spanish) state's power here is weak and cannot totally impose itself," the source said.

Demo for unity 

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for about 16 percent of Spain's population and a fifth of the eurozone country's economy. 

After Friday's declaration of independence, Catalan lawmakers hugged and sang the Catalan anthem. The session was beamed onto giant screens outside and a crowd of 15,000 cheered every "yes" vote.

But on Sunday it was the turn of supporters of a united Spain, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets of the Catalan capital Barcelona, waving Spanish and European flags and chanting "Viva Espana".

Municipal police said the crowd numbered about 300,000. Organisers said 1.3 million turned out and the central government's representative in Catalonia put the figure at one million.

The referendum "was an act of madness that has brought us to the brink," said Alex Ramos, the vice-president of Societat Civil Catalana, a group opposed to independence that organised the rally.

"The streets don't belong just to the separatists," he added.