Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was a wanted man after Spain issued a European warrant for his arrest — and the main question Saturday was how long he could delay the extradition process in Belgium and stay out of the hands of Spanish justice.
Puigdemont and several aides fled to Belgium after they were fired by Spanish authorities after lawmakers in Catalonia voted to declare independence from Spain despite repeated warnings that it would violate the nation’s constitution. It is thought that all five are still hiding in Belgium — their exact whereabouts are unclear.
The deepening crisis over Catalonia is Spain’s worst constitutional challenge in nearly four decades. Puigdemont and the four other former ministers are being sought for five different crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement in a Spanish investigation into their roles in pushing for secession for Catalonia.
But the longer he can delay, the more he can stretch out the legal timetable for any extradition process to Spain and perhaps be a factor or even run in the Dec. 21 regional election that Spanish authorities have called for Catalonia. Legal experts have told The Associated Press that the whole process in Belgium from arrest to extradition, including appeals, could take about two months.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said his government will have no influence over the future of Puigdemont or the other Catalan officials because the European arrest warrant “is a completely legal procedure.”
He said, unlike a normal international extradition, “the executive power does not play any role in the EAW procedure. Everything goes through direct contact between the justice authorities.”
Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer did not answer calls requesting comment on the arrest warrant but has said his client will fight extradition to Spain without seeking political asylum. Belgian federal prosecutors said they had received the arrest warrant late Friday and could question Puigdemont in the coming days.
“We will study it, and put it in the hands of an investigating judge,” prosecutors’ spokesman Eric Van Der Sijpt told the AP. “That could be tomorrow, the day after or even Monday … we are not in any hurry.”
Puigdemont has said he would be willing to cooperate with the Belgian judiciary but that he had lost confidence in Spanish justice, which he claimed has become politicized.
The issue of the international arrest warrant by Spain’s National Court judge Carmen Lamela sparked another round of protests late Friday across Catalonia and its main city of Barcelona.
While Puigdemont and others flew to Belgium, eight more members of his rebellious government stayed in Spain. Judge Lamela questioned those officials on Thursday and ordered that all eight be jailed due to risk that they would not desist in their attempts to achieve secession for Catalonia while the judicial investigation continues.
A ninth former regional minister, Santi Vila, was released on bail. Vila had resigned from Puigdemont’s Cabinet in protest before the declaration of independence.
In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that could be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that Puigdemont or any other politician, even if jailed for suspicion of a crime, can run in the upcoming election until they are actually convicted of a crime.
Fueled by questions of cultural identity and economic malaise, secessionist sentiment has skyrocketed in recent years to reach roughly half of the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia, a prosperous region in northeast Spain.
The separatist majority of Catalonia’s Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Oct. 27. The next day, Spain’s central government used extraordinary constitutional powers to fire Catalonia’s government, dissolve its regional parliament, and call a regional election for Dec. 21.
The efforts by Catalan separatists included holding an illegal referendum on secession on Oct. 1 that failed to meet international standards and was marred by a violent police crackdown. Despite that, over 2 million people voted, overwhelmingly choosing independence.
The referendum and lawmakers’ declaration of independence violated Spain’s Constitution, which says the nation is “indivisible” and that all matters of national sovereignty must be handled by the Spanish Parliament.