MADRID: A Spanish judge has issued an EU arrest warrant for Catalonia's deposed separatist leader a day after he failed to appear for questioning over his role in the region's tumultuous independence drive.
Spanish prosecutors want to charge Carles Puigdemont, who is holed up in Belgium, with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. Yesterday, the 54-year-old ignored a summons to appear before the same judge in Madrid.
An EU arrest warrant was also issued for four Catalan ministers who also failed to show up and are also thought to be in Belgium. They, like Puigdemont, were dismissed by Spain's central government a week ago, a court statement said.
Yesterday the same Spanish judge had Puigdemont's deputy and seven other deposed regional ministers jailed pending a possible trial because of a risk that they might similarly abscond.
Speaking in an interview on Belgian television channel RTBF yesterday recorded before the widely expected warrant was issued, Puigdemont said he was not hiding from "real justice" but from a "clearly politicised" Spanish legal system.
"I have told my lawyers to inform the Belgian justice authorities that I am completely at their disposal," he said.
Spain's worst political crisis in decades flared up 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.
An independence declaration by the Catalan parliament followed one week ago.
Spain's government responded by dismissing Puigdemont's government, imposing direct rule and calling fresh elections in Catalonia on December 21.
Some 20 people including Puigdemont and the Catalan parliament speaker had been summoned for questioning on Thursday.
Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert, who has helped Basque separatists militants challenge Spanish extradition, said his client did not see the climate as "conducive to testifying".
Late Thursday, as television footage showed police vans with flashing blue lights driving Puigdemont's former ministers to different prisons, furious Catalans took to the streets.
About 20,000 people, according to police, demonstrated in the regional capital Barcelona, while others gathered across the region, and thousands turned out again last evening.
In Barcelona, people thronged outside the Catalan parliament chanting "Freedom for political prisoners", "Occupying forces leave" and also "This Europe is a disgrace".
"It's brilliant that people are protesting, although it's a bit late," demonstrator Melanie Ortiz, 27, told AFP.
Puigdemont said on Catalan TV from an undisclosed location late Thursday that the situation "is no longer an internal Spanish affair", calling on the international community to wake up to the "danger".
But apart from Scotland's separatist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon criticising the "jailing of political opponents", there are no signs that other countries' steadfast backing of Madrid is faltering.
Germany reiterated its support for the "unity and constitutional order of Spain" while a European Commission spokeswoman said it respects "fully" the independence of the Spanish judiciary.