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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Suspense over axed Catalan leader's court summons

Paul Bekaert, a Belgian lawyer hired by Mr Puigdemont, said his new client would not return to Spain as there is a 'good chance that he would be detained'

Sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont attends a news conference at the Press Club Brussels Europe in Brussels, Belgium, on October 31, 2017. Yves Herman / Reuters
Sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont attends a news conference at the Press Club Brussels Europe in Brussels, Belgium, on October 31, 2017. Yves Herman / Reuters

Catalonia's sacked separatist leader on Wednesday looked to have thrown down the gauntlet in his tussle with the Spanish government, as his Belgian lawyer suggested he would ignore a Madrid court summons.

Carles Puigdemont, in Brussels since at least Monday, and 13 other members of his dismissed Catalan cabinet were told late Tuesday to be at Spain's top criminal court on Thursday and Friday.

They are due to be questioned in an investigation over Catalonia's independence drive, which has plunged Spain into its biggest crisis in decades.

On Monday, Spain's chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges of rebellion — punishable by up to 30 years behind bars — sedition and misuse of public funds.

The hearing by the National Court, which deals with major criminal cases, could see the 14 formally charged.

But Paul Bekaert, a Belgian lawyer hired by Mr Puigdemont, said late Tuesday that his new client would not return to Spain as there is a "good chance that he would be detained".

Asked on Dutch public broadcaster NOS if Mr Puigdemont would go back, Mr Bekaert said "as far as he told me, that's not going to happen".

"I don't foresee him going back to Spain within the coming weeks," Mr Bekaert told Flemish-language Belgian TV channel VTM.

Two out of the several associates of Mr Puigdemont who travelled with him to Brussels did return to the Catalan capital Barcelona late Tuesday.

If Mr Puigdemont, 54, and the others fail to appear before the court, Spanish prosecutors could order their arrest. An international warrant could follow if they are abroad.

On Tuesday Puigdemont told a packed news conference in Brussels — before the court summons was announced — that he would not return until he had guarantees that legal proceedings would be impartial.

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He insisted his cabinet remained "legitimate" despite having been dismissed by Madrid on Friday and said he was in Brussels "for safety purposes and freedom".

"We want to denounce the politicisation of the Spanish justice system … and to explain to the world the Spanish state's serious democratic deficiencies," he said.

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy and 16 per cent of its population.

An October 1 referendum saw ugly scenes as Spanish police tried to prevent people voting. Mr Puigdemont's camp said the result was a "yes" to secession but turnout was just 43 per cent.

Mr Puigdemont insists that this gave the Catalan parliament a mandate to declare independence last Friday.

The same day Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy's government sacked the regional government and imposed direct control under a never before used article of the constitution.

There had been speculation that Catalan leaders and civil servants might refuse to co-operate but in the event the takeover of regional powers by Madrid has passed off smoothly.

Mr Puigdemont said on Tuesday that he did not want to put civil servants in a "difficult situation" and that the independence drive should "slow down" to avoid unrest.

Mr Rajoy has also called snap elections for December 21 to replace the Catalan parliament. Mr Puigdemont said that he accepted the "challenge" and that he would "respect" the result.

However, divisions appear to be growing in the separatist camp.

Santi Vila, Puigdemont's regional business minister until last week when he resigned, accused his former colleagues on Tuesday of "naivety" and not being ready for independence.

"We lacked the necessary political intelligence," he said on Catalonia's Rac1 radio.

Fernando Vallespin, a political scientist in Madrid, said that Mr Puigdemont, a former journalist, "is more interested in obtaining media attention than escaping justice".

"It's a media war. The aim of [the Catalan executive] has been to try and present the Spanish state as an oppressor state and Puigdemont needs to feed this narrative," he said.