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Catalonia LATEST: Leader Carles Puigdemont may flee Belgium in fear over extradition

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The deposed pro-independence leader has hired a top human rights lawyer who has helped several alleged ETA terrorists fight extradition to Spain.

He is expected to reveal at midday today in his first public appearance since travelling to Brussels why he and five other ex-ministers left Barcelona after the Spanish government imposed direct control over Catalonia last Friday.

Spanish prosecutors want him and his former government charged with rebellion or sedition as well as embezzlement over an illegal October 1 referendum on independence and the Catalan Parliament’s subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.

They could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of rebellion alone.

Catalonia CrisisEPA/REUTERS

Carles Puigdemont greeted his followers after he was removed from office by Mariano Rajoy

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Catalonia CrisisREUTERS

Carles Puigdemont delivered a speech in Girona after he was officially deposed by Madrid

They ask citizens and civil servants to break the law, but they vote in secret, change the name of their assets or flee to another country

Albert Rivera

Mr Puigdemont is understood to have picked Belgium, which can grant EU nationals political asylum under certain conditions, so he can use it as a ‘safe’ base to force Europe to mediate in the Catalonia crisis.

Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras has also raised the possibility Mr Puigdemont could try to establish a quasi ‘government in exile’ from Belgium, saying: “We see Brussels as a place where a lot of work can be done.”

Spanish prosecutors are expected to seek Mr Puigdemont’s extradition if he tries to stay in Belgium – and seek his immediate incarceration if he decides to return voluntarily but fails to appear in court for questioning.

This Friday – and if not a weekday next week – is being billed as the likely date for the summons to the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s National Criminal Court which will lead the lengthy criminal investigation into Mr Puigdemont and his deposed government colleagues following the lawsuit presented by state prosecutors.

Mariano Rajoy.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gave a press conference after a cabinet meeting in Madrid

Paul Bekaert, the Belgian lawyer who four years ago succeeded in blocking the extradition to Spain of alleged ETA terrorist Natividad Jauregui, has said he is advising Mr Puigdemont.

Spain wanted him back in Madrid so he could be tried for killing a police officer as he left a church in Bilbao.

Mr Bekeart also defended Kurdish terrorist Fehriye Erdal, sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia for killing three people in 1996 after escaping 24-hour Belgian secret service surveillance.

Spanish news website OKDiario.com claimed Puigdemont could end up moving onto a third country to frustrate attempts to force him back to Spain if any hopes he harbours of staying in Belgium are blocked.

Catalonia CrisisREUTERS

Carles Puigdemont walks with his wife Marcela Topor the day after declaring independence

The paper said: “Puigdemont’s flight to Brussels along with part of his deposed government has been a surprise.

“It’s also an inconvenience because if he ends up asking for asylum in Belgium the Spanish government would have to seek his extradition.

“There’s another possibility and that is that Puigdemont, on his own or alone, decides to put more distance between himself and Spanish justice and ‘jumps’ from Brussels to another country that can shelter him and whose relationship with Spain is not an ideal one.”

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catala said he was confident any attempt by Mr Puigdemont to seek political asylum in Belgium would be over in “half an hour.”

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PSOE veteran Alfonso Guerra, ex-vice president of the Spanish government, accused the Catalan president of having a “Dalai Lama” complex and added: “I don’t think he’ll ask for political asylum. He’s in Europe. He’s ignorant. He’s probably just having a few drinks in a bar in Brussels.”

Right-wing Spanish newspaper La Razon reported several other members of Mr Puigdemont’s deposed government had travelled to Belgium to join the five ex-ministers that travelled with him by car to Marseille and on to Brussels by plane.

Albert Rivera, the leader of pro-union party Ciudadanos, branded Mr Puigdemont and his allies as hypocrites by tweeting: “They ask citizens and civil servants to break the law, but they vote in secret, change the name of their assets or flee to another country.”

A journalist on state broadcaster TVE called him “pathetic” and also said she thought he might move on to another country if he didn’t end up staying in Belgium.

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Pro-unity protesters gather in Catalonia's capital Barcelona, two days after lawmakers voted to split the wealthy region from Spain, plunging the country into an unprecedented political crisis




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A protester waves a pirate-shaped collage of a Catalan Flag during a pro-unity demonstration at Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona . Images

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A protester waves a pirate-shaped collage of a Catalan Flag during a pro-unity demonstration at Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona

The Spanish government has asked the country’s Constitutional Court to declare the Catalan Parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence null and void.

Puigdemont’s Spanish lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, asked if Puigdemont would show up if he was summonsed for questioning, said: “I can’t say he will or that he won’t.”

He also slammed the Spanish State Prosecution Service lawsuit, announced by Attorney General Jose Manuel Maza yesterday [Mon], as absurd.

He told Catalan radio station RAC1: “I think it is a disproportionate response because it has the same level of gravity as terrorism.”

He added: “The accusation of rebellion requires the existence of violence as a core element and there hasn’t been any.”

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