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Spain to Issue Arrest Warrant for Catalan Leader Puigdemont

Madrid (AFP) – A judge in Madrid was set Friday to issue an EU arrest warrant for Catalonia’s deposed leader over his region’s tumultuous independence drive, in a move likely to take tensions to a new level in Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

The warrant for Carles Puigdemont, who is holed up in Belgium, was expected a day after a Spanish judge threw a large chunk of Puigdemont’s axed regional government behind bars over their role in Catalonia’s secession push.

Students blocked roads and a railway line in Catalonia as demonstrators geared up for more protests after tens of thousands took to the streets on Thursday waving Catalan flags and chanting in anger over the detentions.

Puigdemont, 54, dismissed last week as Catalan president by Spain’s government, failed to show up on Thursday to be grilled by the judge over alleged sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds, accusations he calls politically motivated.

Judge Carmen Lamela, who on Thursday had Puigdemont’s deputy Oriol Junqueras and seven other deposed regional ministers detained pending a potential trial, will issue the warrant “during the day Friday,” a judicial source told AFP.

Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert, who in the past has helped Basque separatists militants challenge Spanish extradition requests, told Flemish television channel VRT on Thursday his client would appeal the move.

Puigdemont also said on Catalan TV from an undisclosed location that the situation “is no longer an internal Spanish affair” and called on the international community to wake up to the “danger”.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who wants independence from Britain, said Friday the standoff “should be resolved democratically — not by the jailing of political opponents”.

But otherwise Puigdemont’s appeal for foreign sympathy is likely to fall on deaf ears, with the international community overwhelmingly so far backing the central government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s spokesman said Friday that “what is important to us is that the unity and constitutional order of Spain are maintained”.

A European Commission spokeswoman said the warrant for Puigdemont “is a matter entirely for the judicial authorities whose independence we respect fully.”

– ‘Dictatorship not justice’ –

Late Thursday, as television footage showed images of police vans with flashing blue lights driving Puigdemont’s former ministers to different prisons, Catalans took to the streets in anger and disbelief.

About 20,000 people, according to police, demonstrated in the regional capital Barcelona, while others gathered across the region.

They held up mobile phones like candles, waved separatist flags — red and yellow stripes with a white star — and chanted “Free political prisoners” and “This isn’t justice but dictatorship”.

“There are political prisoners! This exacerbates things but this will also open the eyes of lots of people in Europe as well as in Catalonia,” retiree Josep Manel Boix, 63, told AFP.

“The Spanish state is a failed state, a state that has failed democratically,” Catalan lawmaker Marta Rovira said in Madrid, fighting back tears. “I’m convinced we won’t surrender, we won’t, we will fight until the end.”

“We are one step from the abyss,” Catalan daily La Vanguardia said in an editorial.

The campaign for the December 21 election in Catalonia, called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy when Spain moved to impose direct rule in the wealthy region, “faces the serious risk of catching fire”.

– Boycotting in Belgium –

A total of 20 people including Puigdemont, Junqueras and the Catalan parliament speaker had been summoned for questioning on Thursday.

Puigdemont and four others thought to be with him in Belgium — likely also the subject of a warrant — failed to turn up.

Bekaert said his client did not see the climate as “conducive to testifying”.

In her ruling, Lamela said she had ordered preventive detention because of the danger they might abscond like Puigdemont.

Catalan demands for independence date back centuries but have surged in recent years, in part due to a difficult economic situation compounded by corruption.

The crisis escalated over the staging of a Catalan independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban. Spanish police tried and failed to stop it, in some cases firing rubber bullets.

A declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament followed last Friday, but Rajoy responded by dismissing the regional government, imposing direct rule on Catalonia and calling the December election.

The 7.5 million people of Catalonia, which until this week had considerable autonomy, are fiercely proud of their language and culture but are in fact deeply divided about independence, polls indicate.

Spain’s central bank warned Thursday of a possible recession in Catalonia. Statistics on Friday showed a higher-than-usual rise in unemployment in October, and Barcelona hotel bookings are down.

Close to 2,000 firms have moved their legal headquarters outside Catalonia, helped by Spain last month tweaking the law making it easier to do so, separatists complain.

There are signs of growing divisions among separatists, with many unhappy with Puigdemont.

Peter Ceretti at the Economist Intelligence Unit said there is a “serious risk” that pro-independence parties will win the December election, with the ministers in prison “important propaganda”.

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