By Ciaran Giles and Aritz Parra / Associated Press
MADRID — A Spanish prosecutor asked a judge Thursday to issue an international arrest warrant for the former president of Catalonia and four of his ministers after they failed to appear in a Madrid court for questioning about their efforts to break the region away from Spain.
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his 13-member Cabinet were among those summoned to Spain’s National Court. Puigdemont surfaced in Belgium on Tuesday with some of his ex-ministers, saying they were seeking “freedom and safety” there. He and four of the officials remained in Brussels on Thursday.
Asked whether Puigdemont would turn himself in if the arrest warrant is granted, his lawyer in Belgium, Paul Bekaert, told The Associated Press: “Certainly. Or the police will come get him.” Bekaert said Puigdemont intends to cooperate with Belgian police.
Meanwhile, the same judge, Investigative Magistrate Carmen Lamela, sent eight former Catalan Cabinet members to jail without bail and ordered another to be held pending a 50,000-euro ($58,300) bail payment.
The ruling was made at the request of prosecutors after the nine were questioned at the National Court in Madrid. Under Spain’s legal system, investigating judges can order the detention of suspects while a comprehensive probe, sometimes taking months, determines if charges should be brought.
Also Thursday, six Catalan lawmakers appeared for a parallel session in the Spanish Supreme Court. They were given a week to prepare their defenses and instructed to return for questioning on Nov. 9.
In all, 20 regional politicians are being investigated on possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement for a declaration of secession the Parliament of Catalonia made on Oct. 27. The crimes are punishable by up to 30 years in prison under Spanish law.
Lawyers for the jailed officials said they plan to appeal Lamela’s order. Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, who represents former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras and four more of the ousted Cabinet members, said the judge’s decision to send them to jail “lacked justification” and was “disproportionate.”
The Catalan officials’ supporters and party aides in Madrid were seen crying outside the courthouse when the judge’s decision was announced. They shouted “Freedom! Freedom!” and sang the Catalan official anthem, “Els Segadors.”
Spain took the unprecedented step of triggering constitutional powers allowing it to take over running Catalonia following the region’s declaration of independence. Madrid dismissed the Catalan Cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and called a new regional election for Dec. 21.
Junqueras, in a tweet sent shortly after the judge’s decision jailing him for pushing Catalonia’s secession, called on Catalans to vote in the upcoming regional election on Dec. 21.
“Do every day everything that is in your hands in order for good to defeat evil in the ballots of Dec. 21,” the tweet posted through Junqueras’ account said. “Standing up, with determination and onward to victory.”
Javier Melero, a lawyer representing some of the separatist lawmakers investigated in the Supreme Court, criticized Puigdemont and the four ministers who skipped court. He said their actions would be damaging for his clients, three lawmakers who are members of Puigdemont’s PDeCAT party.
“Not being at the service of the judiciary when you are summoned is always damaging for the rest of those being investigated,” Melero said.
About two dozen politicians and elected officials from Catalan separatist parties gathered at the gates of the Supreme Court in a show of support for the lawmakers under investigation.
“If the question is if in Spain you can trust the judicial system, my answer is no,” said Artur Mas, a former president of the Catalan government. “From the personal point of view and also for my personal experience, I don’t think that there are all the guarantees to have a fair trial.”
Mas was banned by a Barcelona court from holding public office for two years after he ignored a Constitutional Court ruling and went ahead with a mock vote on Catalonia’s independence in 2014.
Across the street, half a dozen protesters with Spanish flags were stopped by police. They shouted at the Catalan politicians, “cowards” and “to jail, to jail.”
In Barcelona, the Catalan regional capital, thousands of people rallied outside the regional presidential palace in Sant Jaume Square to show their support for the pro-secession politicians, clapping and chanting slogans in favor of independence.
The protracted political crisis over Catalonia, Spain’s worst in decades, could have an impact on the country’s economic growth, Spain’s central bank warned in a report published Thursday.
The Bank of Spain had assessed the potential consequences of two possible scenarios: one is a temporary period of uncertainty in the fourth quarter of 2017 which could shave 0.3 percentage points off forecast growth through the end of 2019. The other scenario was a “severe and prolonged” crisis, which would bring an accumulated decrease of 2.5 percentage points in Spain’s gross domestic product between the end of 2017 and 2019.
That, it said, could spell a recession for the Catalan economy.
Sylvain Plazy in Belgium, Paolo Santalucia in Madrid, and Elena Becatoros in Barcelona, contributed to this report.