Spain judge jails Catalan ministers, mulls leader's arrest

2017-11-02 22:57
Protesters wave a Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flag during a demonstration outside the Spanish national police headquarters in Barcelona on October 2, 2017 to protest against the action of the national police during a banned independence referendum a day ago. (AFP)

Protesters wave a Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flag during a demonstration outside the Spanish national police headquarters in Barcelona on October 2, 2017 to protest against the action of the national police during a banned independence referendum a day ago. (AFP)

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Madrid — A Spanish prosecutor asked a judge on Thursday to issue an international arrest warrant for the former president of Catalonia and four of his ministers after they failed to appear in a Madrid court for questioning about their efforts to break the region away from Spain.

Meanwhile, the same judge, Investigative Magistrate Carmen Lamela, sent eight former Catalan Cabinet members to jail without bail and ordered another to be held pending a €50 000 ($58 300) bail payment.

The ruling was made at the request of prosecutors after the nine were questioned at the National Court in Madrid.

Charges of rebellion

Also on Thursday, six Catalan lawmakers appeared for a parallel session in the Spain Supreme Court. They were given a week to prepare their defenses and instructed to return for questioning on November 9.

In all, 20 regional politicians are being investigated on possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement for a declaration of secession the Parliament of Catalonia made on October 27. The crimes are punishable by up to 30 years in prison under Spanish law.

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his 13-member Cabinet were among those summoned to Spain's National Court for questioning. Puigdemont surfaced in Belgium on Tuesday with some of his ex-ministers, saying they were seeking "freedom and safety" there.

He and four of the officials remained in Brussels on Thursday.

Catalan leader says he is seeking safety outside Spain

Catalonia's ousted regional president said on Tuesday he travelled to Brussels to seek "freedom and safety" after Spain blocked his bid for Catalan independence and sought to bring charges against him that could put him in prison for decades.

Puigdemont's No. 2, former Vice President Oriol Junqueras, was the first to arrive Thursday at the National Court. He went in accompanied by lawyers, passing by dozens of journalists, and declined to answer questions.

The proceedings started with an appearance by the regional government's former spokesperson, Jordi Turull. He was followed by Josep Rull, who handled the region's territorial affairs.

Triggering constitutional powers

Spain took the unprecedented step of triggering constitutional powers allowing it to take over running Catalonia following the region's declaration of independence. Madrid dismissed the Catalan Cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and called a new regional election for December 21.

Javier Melero, a lawyer representing some of the separatist lawmakers investigated in the Supreme Court, criticised Puigdemont and the four ministers who skipped court. He said their actions would be damaging for his clients, three lawmakers who are members of Puigdemont's PDeCAT party.

"Not being at the service of the judiciary when you are summoned is always damaging for the rest of those being investigated," Melero said.

About two dozen politicians and elected officials from Catalan separatist parties gathered at the gates of the Supreme Court in a show of support for the lawmakers under investigation.

A fair trial

"If the question is if in Spain you can trust the judicial system, my answer is no," said Artur Mas, a former president of the Catalan government. "From the personal point of view and also for my personal experience, I don't think that there are all the guarantees to have a fair trial."

Mas was banned by a Barcelona court from holding public office for two years after he ignored a Constitutional Court ruling and went ahead with a mock vote on Catalonia's independence in 2014.

Assumpcio Lailla, a former lawmaker with Catalonia's Democrats party, said she travelled to Madrid both to back the subjects of the rebellion probe and to oppose the criminal probe.

"This is an unjust situation in which they are being investigated for facilitating democracy," she said. "I don't understand how Europe can look away from democracy."

Across the street, half a dozen protesters with Spanish flags were stopped by police. They shouted at the Catalan politicians, "cowards" and "to jail, to jail".

A severe and prolonged crisis

In Barcelona, the Catalan regional capital, thousands of people rallied outside the regional presidential palace in Sant Jaume Square to show their support for the pro-secession politicians, clapping and chanting slogans in favour of independence.

The protracted political crisis over Catalonia, Spain's worst in decades, could have an impact on the country's economic growth, Spain's central bank warned in a report published on Thursday.

The Bank of Spain had assessed the potential consequences of two possible scenarios: one is a temporary period of uncertainty in the fourth quarter of 2017 which could shave 0.3 percentage points off forecast growth through the end of 2019.

The other scenario was a "severe and prolonged" crisis, which would bring an accumulated decrease of 2.5 percentage points in Spain's gross domestic product between the end of 2017 and 2019.

That, it said, could spell a recession for the Catalan economy.

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