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Carles Puigdemont says he can't return to Catalonia because Spain is intent on 'vengeance'

Ousted regional president denies he is seeking asylum in Brussels and says he will not give up on fight for Catalan independence

Jon Stone
Tuesday 31 October 2017 13:23 GMT
Carles Puigdemont says he cannot return to Catalonia because Spain is intent on 'vengeance'

Hot, last-minute and chaotic, ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s first press conference since fleeing Barcelona for Brussels was a fitting tribute to the political crisis that has gripped Spain.

Amid speculation that he and members of his former cabinet would seek political asylum, fuelled by the comments of a Belgian minister, the disputed Catalan president instead recommitted himself to the independence cause.

It is believed that Mr Puigdemont and his colleagues drove across the border into France before flying to Brussels on Monday, after Spain took over control of the Catalan region’s government and agencies.

Mr Puigdemont said he could not return to Spain unless given clear assurances that he will be protected, accusing Madrid of being intent on "vengeance". He and his colleagues would stay in Belgium as long as their safety was not assured in Spain and would "continue our work despite the limits imposed on us."

Insisting he remained the rightful leader of Catalonia, Mr Puigdemont said his centre-right PDeCAT party would nonetheless accept the challenge of regional elections called for 21 December "with all our strength" and vowed that Catalan separatists would come out to vote.

Spain wants Catalonia "to abandon our political project, and they won't achieve it," he said.

As the news emerged on Monday that Mr Puigdemont’s contingent had fled the country, there was a distinct sense of deflation among those of his allies who remained in Barcelona to carry out a planned campaign of civil disobedience.

And as he entered the building in Brussels, he walked past protesters holding Spanish national flags and a sign that read "Estado de Derecho" - "Rule Of Law".

Other anti-independence demonstrators waving Catalan and Spanish flags chanted "viva Espana, viva Cataluña!" amid a heavy presence from Belgian police.

Carles Puigdemont wades through a press crowd in Brussels

Five minutes from the headquarters of the European Commission, at the Brussels Press Club, Mr Puigdemont declared he had travelled to “the capital of Europe” in order to speak from a position of “freedom and safety”.

Spain admonished Belgium’s migration minister Theo Francken yesterday for entertaining talk of political asylum, and there was some suggestion on Tuesday that the Belgian government had blocked Mr Puigdemont from using the larger international press centre in the city, lest it be seen to be taking sides.

The disputed president instead took questions from the world's media in a packed-out presentation room that was well-over capacity.

Asked whether he would return to Spain to serve a possible 30-year jail sentence for sedition and rebellion, Mr Puigdemont demurred and handed his microphone to one of his fellow ministers.

After a brief pause, the minister said: “Would a fair trial have this as a reasonable outcome? Ask this question and you will have the answer.”

Despite dismissing the possibility of claiming asylum, the Catalan independence leader was also vague about how long he would stay in Belgium.

“It depends on the circumstances, as long as we consider it necessary,” he said, switching throughout his presentation between English, Spanish, Catalan and French.

“The situation is developing every day. Here we have better guarantees for our rights here and we can meet our obligations from here.”

He added: “If they can guarantee to all of us, and to me in particular, a just, independent process, with the separation of powers that we have in the majority of European nations, if they guarantee that, we would return immediately.”

The disputed president has hired a Belgian lawyer, Paul Bekaert, who has 40 years’ experience in human rights law, including blocking extraditions for people seeking to remain in Belgium.

If Mr Puigdemont tries to fight extradition to Spain to face charges, he could effectively be claiming asylum in all but name. Madrid could request the enforcement of a European Arrest Warrant, the system introduced in 2004 to ease extraditions between member states. But this would mark yet another dramatic escalation in this difficult and heated crisis.

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