Tensions high as Spain seeks charges against Catalonia's leaders

If the Catalan crisis were a soccer match, then last night’s win by the Girona football club over the mighty Real-Madrid would have been a major boost for the separatist cause.

Girona, where the match was played, is the city where erstwhile Catalan President Carles Puigdemont first launched his political career. He tweeted that Sunday’s unexpected win was an “example for many things.”

In reality though, Puigdemont is facing the threat of jail after being fired on Saturday along with the rest of his government, a day after the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain.

Now Spanish prosecutors are seeking charges such as rebellion and sedition against Catalan leaders, including Puigdemont, for their role in the disputed Oct. 1 referendum and the events since then.

Adding to the drama, a Spanish government official told The Associated Press that Puigdemont had travelled to Brussels days after Belgian Asylum State Secretary Theo Francken said it would be “not unrealistic” for the ousted Catalan president to seek asylum.

Lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas says his client ‘has not committed a single crime.’ (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

If Puigdemont is arrested, said his lawyer, it would turn the Catalan leader into a political prisoner and force the European Union to intervene.

“This would be a flagrant violation of human rights as Mr. Puigdemont has not committed a single crime,” Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas said in a rare interview, accusing the Spanish government of trying to “criminalize a political conflict.”

“But there are more than two million Catalonians who went to vote in hard circumstances with police violence and there is a feeling that Catalonia is being bullied by Spain,” he said.

“If the Spanish state keeps using disproportionate violence it will force the EU countries to react against the Spanish government.”

Hardline approach

Chaotic scenes of Spanish police beating back Catalonians trying to cast their ballots on referendum day, yanking some people out of polling stations by their hair and using tear gas, shocked outside observers.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has adopted a consistently hard line against Puigdemont and other separatist leaders, accusing them of acting outside the Spanish constitution and threatening to break state unity.

Many Catalonians who favour remaining with Spain agree. In a massive demonstration in the Catalan capital of Barcelona yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people marched through the centre waving Spanish flags and chanting “send Puigdemont to jail.”

barcelona protest catalonia

Protesters draped in the Spanish flag walk toward a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“I think at least he should go to court and be judged according to the law, and then let’s see,” said Javier Cucalon, a businessman working with a Danish company based in Barcelona.

“But I think he should have a penalty for that. It could be jail. It could be a financial penalty.”

Like many Catalonians, Cucalon is worried about the flight of business from Barcelona, a city that prides itself on its cosmopolitan nature, and from the rest of the region which is responsible for about a quarter of Spain’s exports.

“And these are our jobs. This is our wealth. This is an irresponsible behaviour of those politicians and believe it or not I think we will pay for this for years and years.”

Architect Irene Brugueras agreed.

“We like the way things were. We were going out from a [economic] crisis and we are back on a big crisis. I’m not going to follow a president that doesn’t follow the law. It’s very dangerous for our country.”

Catalan grievances

But Alonso-Cuevillas laid blame firmly at the feet of an unbending national government, which he accused of refusing to deal with Catalan grievances or to even to countenance the possibility of a referendum.

“I don’t know if there is a clear majority of Catalans [in favour of independence] or not. I think there are, eh?” he said. “But it’s sure there’s a majority of Catalans want to vote, wants to decide.”

The lawyer, Alonso-Cuevillas, describes the situation in Catalonia as a tension between legality and legitimacy.

“If the majority of people want something the law can’t be the excuse to say no to them. And we have tried to negotiate this many times.”

The mood on the streets of Barcelona is increasingly fraught.

“We are worried about the future. About our sons and daughters,” said Ricard Serrano, an older man who had taken refuge from the political upheaval on the streets to read his newspaper in a quiet square.

Ricard Serrano

Ricard Serrano favours independence for Catalonia but only through peaceful means. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

He believes Madrid will try to make an example out of Puigdemont and the regional government. “I don’t want it to happen, but I think they are going to prison,” he says.

Alonso-Cuevillas said yesterday he was expecting the Spanish prosecutor to put in its request for Puigdemont’s arrest with a national court tribunal on Monday.

“Spanish justice is very, very slow. But it has two speeds. On certain occasions it goes very fast.”

‘A very difficult situation’

Another chapter in the story begins today as thousands of Catalan public servants begin work with the region, which is now under the administration of Madrid for the first time in four decades. At least on paper. 

“It’s a very difficult situation now,” said Alonso-Cuevillas. “There is a new republic. A new nut who wants to become a state, but he has not the force. And there is a state who has all the force. In the next days and weeks we will see if the new republic has the force or not.”

The question many are now asking is whether or not Puigdemont will try to go to work this week.

“I don’t know,” said Alonso-Cuevillas, with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile. “I am only a poor criminal lawyer who tries to defend as best as possible Mr. Puigdemont. But I am not his political counsellor.”

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