BRUSSELS — The ousted leader of Catalonia remained the subject of a European arrest warrant Saturday as questions mounted over how long he would elude the Spanish justice system by staying undercover in Belgium and delaying extradition.
Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several members of his separatist Catalan government fled north to Brussels after Spanish authorities removed the region’s top officials from office a week ago. It is thought that Puigdemont and four others still are in Belgium, but sources close to them would not reveal their whereabouts.
Puigdemont wrote in Dutch on his Twitter account Saturday that he would “cooperate” with Belgian authorities, although his lawyer has said the separatist politician would fight a forced return to Spain.
“We are prepared to fully cooperate with Belgian justice following the European arrest warrant issued by Spain,” Puigdemont wrote in Dutch on his Twitter account.
He also sent a message in Catalan to political followers in northeastern Spain, weighing in on a debate among secessionists regarding strategy for the December snap election Spain’s government has called as part of its temporary takeover of Catalonia.
“It’s the moment for all democrats to unite. For Catalonia, for the freedom of political prisoners and the Republic,” he wrote, endorsing calls for pro-secession political parties to unite in a coalition for the upcoming election.
Back in Barcelona, the government seat of Catalonia, the leader of the Catalan Socialists criticized Puigdemont for his flight to Europe’s capital 1,066 kilometers (662 miles) away.
“We have members of the government in prison, and others in Brussels trying to avoid the law,” Miquel Iceta, whose Socialists oppose breaking away from Spain. “This is time to build bridges, not raise frontiers.”
Puigdemont and the four former ministers are being sought for five crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, for their roles in pushing regional lawmakers to declare independence from Spain despite repeated warnings that it would violate the Spain Constitution.
But the longer Puigdemont can delay his arrest and extradition, the greater chance he would have of being a factor in the Dec. 21 election.
Legal experts have told The Associated Press that the process of getting another country’s suspect turned over to face charges — from arrest to extradition, including appeals — could take about two months in Belgium.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said his government will have no influence over the future of Puigdemont or the other Catalan officials because the European arrest warrant “is a completely legal procedure.”
He said, unlike a normal international extradition, “the executive power does not play any role in the EAW procedure. Everything goes through direct contact between the justice authorities.”
Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer did not answer calls requesting comment on the arrest warrant but has said his client would fight extradition to Spain without requesting political asylum. Belgian federal prosecutors confirmed they received the arrest warrants late Friday and said they could question Puigdemont in coming days.
“We will study it, and put it in the hands of an investigating judge,” prosecutors’ spokesman Eric Van Der Sijpt told The Associated Press.. “That could be tomorrow, the day after or even Monday … we are not in any hurry.”
The international arrest warrant Spain’s National Court judge Carmen Lamela signed off on Friday sparked another round of protests late Friday across Catalonia and its main city, Barcelona.
While Puigdemont and his four aides hid in Belgium, eight members of his deposed government stayed in Spain. Lamela questioned them on Thursday and ordered all eight jailed without bail because of what the judge said was the risk they would persist in trying to achieve secession for Catalonia while they are under criminal investigation.
A ninth former regional minister, Santi Vila, was released on bail after spending on night behind bars.
In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that could be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that politicians, even those who are jailed for suspicion of a crime, can run in the upcoming election unless they are convicted. Puigdemont has left the door open to running.
The leader of Spain’s ruling conservatives in Catalonia said he did not care what Puigdemont said or did.
“We are going to ignore him, that is what someone like him who has done so much damage to Catalonia deserves,” the Popular Party’s Xavier Garcia Albiol said.
On the other side of the Catalan political divide, a senior official of a large separatist party, the Republican Left, conditioned her party’s participation in the Dec. 21 elections on the release of all the jailed separatists from prison.
“If (Spain) wants democratic elections, if it wants to show that it is really democratic, it is necessary that it releases the main leaders of one of the options that will run for elections,” Republic Left general secretary Marta Rovira said. “We demand the freedom of all political prisoners, of all of them!”
Rovira appeared to issue a veiled threat that, saying that if her party’s demands were not met, separatists could try to scuttle the elections by encouraging pro-independence local officials to not manage the election.
“Elections here can only happen here if we say they do,” Rovira said. “I know that the 90 percent of the town halls are needed to organize elections.”
Fueled by questions of cultural identity and economic malaise, secessionist sentiment has skyrocketed to reach roughly half of the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia, a prosperous region that is proud of its Catalan language spoken along with Spanish.
The separatist majority of Catalonia’s Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Oct. 27. The next day, Spain’s central government used extraordinary constitutional powers to fire Catalonia’s government and dissolve its regional parliament.
Spain’s Constitution says the nation is “indivisible” and that all matters of national sovereignty must be handled by the Spanish Parliament.