A judge in Madrid has ordered eight members of the deposed Catalan government to be remanded in custody pending possible charges over last week’s declaration of independence, and Spanish prosecutors are seeking a European arrest warrant for the region’s ousted president, Carles Puigdemont.
Carmen Lamela, sitting in Spain’s national court, jailed the eight former ministers – including Puigdemont’s deputy, Oriol Junqueras – on Thursday while they are investigated on possible charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
Lawyers for those under investigation said their clients would appeal against the judge’s decision, which they described as unjustified, disproportionate and predetermined.
Puigdemont, who travelled to Brussels shortly before Spain’s attorney general announced his intention to pursue the charges, had been summoned to attend the national court to give evidence on Thursday and Friday.
In a written request to Lamela, prosecutors said that Puigdemont and four other members of his administration were aware that they had been ordered to testify, but had chosen not to attend.
“Repeated attempts to deliver the summons at home and repeated phone calls have been ignored,” they said. “For his part, Carles Puigdemont has publicly stated his intention not to appear and has requested … to make a statement via videoconference, without giving any information about his current whereabouts.”
Consequently, they added, they were requesting Puigdemont be found and arrested, along with the four other regional ministers who are also in Belgium.
Lamela’s decision to remand the leaders in custody on the grounds that they could be a flight risk was swiftly condemned by politicians and civil society groups in Catalonia and beyond.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Catalonia last month after the same judge ordered the jailing of two prominent pro-independence leaders, Jordi Sánchez, the president of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and Jordi Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural.
Both men are under investigation for alleged sedition in the run-up to the unilateral independence referendum on 1 October.
The ANC called for a huge demonstration on Thursday evening outside the Catalan parliament in Barcelona. Its vice-president, Agustí Alcoberro, said the arrested leaders were political prisoners, and tweeted: “Vice-president and ministers, we will not stop until we secure your freedom.”
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, described it as a black day for Catalonia. “A government democratically elected at the ballot box is in jail,” she said. “There is a common front to achieve the freedom of the political prisoners.”
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the anti-austerity Podemos party, said: “I’m ashamed that they lock up opponents in my country. We don’t want Catalan independence, but today we say ‘free the political prisoners’.”
Late on Thursday afternoon, Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer, Paul Bekaert, said the idea of seeking asylum was now off the table.
Bekaert told the Associated Press he was not aware of a European arrest warrant being issued for his client, but said Puigdemont would turn himself in to Belgian authorities if one were. “We will put in place everything we can in order to collaborate with the Belgian police,” he said.
Puigdemont, 54, has dismissed the accusations against him as politically motivated. On Tuesday he said he would remain in Brussels until he received guarantees that any proceedings would be impartial.
A parallel supreme court session for six Catalan MPs, including Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the regional parliament, was postponed for a week following a request from their lawyers.
The nine members of the separatist government had appeared at the national court early on Thursday morning.
Junqueras was the first to arrive at the court. He entered the building accompanied by lawyers, passing by dozens of journalists and declined to answer questions.
Assumpció Lailla, a former politician with Catalonia’s Democrats party, said she had travelled to Madrid to join about 100 other politicians and elected officials to show support to those under investigation for rebellion.
“This is an unjust situation in which they are being investigated for facilitating democracy,” she told the Associated Press. “I don’t understand how Europe can look away from democracy.”
Supporters outside court cheered and shouted “freedom, freedom” and “we are not afraid”.
Across the street, police stopped a handful protesters with Spanish flags. Addressing the Catalan politicians, they shouted “cowards” and “to jail, to jail”.
In Barcelona, thousands of people rallied outside the Catalan presidential palace on Thursday afternoon in a show of support for the ousted officials.
Spain has been convulsed by its worst political crisis in four decades since Puigdemont’s government held the unilateral independence referendum in defiance of Spain’s government, constitution and constitutional court.
MPs in the 135-seat regional parliament voted for independence last Friday by a margin of 70 votes to 10.
Dozens of opposition MPs boycotted the secret ballot, walking out of the chamber in Barcelona before it took place and leaving Spanish and Catalan flags on their empty seats in protest.
Minutes later, the Spanish senate granted the government in Madrid unprecedented powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia under article 155 of the constitution.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, used the article to sack Puigdemont and his government and announce snap regional elections on 21 December.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Puigdemont dispelled speculation that secessionists might refuse to participate in the elections, saying he accepted the challenge “with all our strength”.
Spain wants Catalonia “to abandon our political project, and they won’t achieve it”, he said.