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Ousted Catalan leader Puigdemont will not return to Spain to testify, says lawyer

Puigdemont order to appear in Madrid court this week

world Updated: Nov 01, 2017 22:35 IST
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont walks along a street after giving a press conference in Brussels, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017.
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont walks along a street after giving a press conference in Brussels, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. (AP)

Dismissed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont will ignore a court order to return to Spain to answer charges over the region’s push for independence, but he could testify from Belgium, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

If Puigdemont fails to answer Thursday’s High Court summons, an arrest warrant could be issued that would make it virtually impossible for him to stand in a snap regional election called by the Spanish government for Dec. 21.

There was currently no arrest warrant out for Puigdemont, the lawyer, Paul Bekaert, told Associated Press.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked Puigdemont and his government on Friday, hours after the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence -- a vote boycotted by the opposition and declared illegal by Spanish courts.

On Monday, Spain’s state prosecutor filed charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against Puigdemont for defying the central government by holding an referendum on secession on Oct. 1 and later proclaiming independence.

Puigdemont travelled to Belgium at the weekend with other members of the dismissed Catalan administration and hired a lawyer.

“(He) is not going to Madrid and I suggest that they question him here in Belgium. It is possible,” Bekaert told AP, adding there were provisions in the law that allowed his questioning outside Spain.

Sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont attends a news conference at the Press Club Brussels Europe in Brussels, Belgium, October 31, 2017. (REUTERS)

The High Court summoned Puigdemont and 13 other former members of the Catalan government to testify in Madrid on Thursday and Friday on the prosecutor’s charges.

A judge will then decide whether those called to testify should go to jail pending an investigation that could take several years and potentially lead to a trial. The judge might also grant them conditional bail or order them to surrender their passports.

If Puigdemont and his associates did not turn up, the judge might also order them jailed as a flight risk.

The courts have also told the Catalan secessionist leaders to deposit 6.2 million euros ($7.2 million) by Friday to cover potential liabilities.

“OFF TO PRISON”?

Three former Catalan government advisors returned to Spain from Belgium late on Tuesday and were greeted at Barcelona’s international airport by a small crowd chanting “off to prison”.

Puigdemont and four others were not among those returning to Spain. He said on Tuesday he would only go back to Spain when given unspecified “guarantees” by the Spanish government.

Wednesday is a national holiday in Spain and government offices are closed, giving a brief respite in Spain’s gravest political crisis since its return to democracy some four decades ago.

Following a tumultuous month, attention is also gradually turning to the December election, called by Rajoy when Madrid took over control of the previously autonomous region.

Puigdemont said in Brussels on Tuesday he accepted the election and the Madrid government said he was welcome to stand, though legal proceedings might prevent that.

Uncertainty over how the crisis will play out has prompted more than 1,800 Catalonia-based companies to move their legal headquarters out of the region and the government to lower its country-wide economic forecasts for next year.

On Wednesday, rating agency Moody’s said the declaration of independence and the suspension of self rule were credit negative for the region and the country, and that associated uncertainty would damage sentiment and consumer spending.

Moody’s raised Spain’s credit rating to Baa2 in 2014 as the country emerged from a prolonged economic slump.

On Tuesday, Moody’s affirmed Catalonia’s long-term issuer and debt ratings of Ba3, saying the government’s reinforced control compensated for the increased risks, in particular the region’s rapidly deteriorating business climate.