Facing Charges Of Rebellion And Sedition, Catalonia's Ousted Leader Flees Spain
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Catalonia's separatist leader is in Brussels today. This ends speculation about his whereabouts after he disappeared from Barcelona yesterday. In a press conference in the Belgian capital this morning, he said he wasn't seeking asylum but had come to plead for European Union help in solving the crisis in Spain. The Spanish government fired him from his job after he had presided over an independence referendum and a declaration of independence. Now it looks like the Catalan leader may be prosecuted for rebellion, sedition and abuse of public funds. Lauren Frayer reports from Barcelona on the mysterious movements of Catalonia's deposed president.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Spain fired all Catalan government ministers over the weekend and warned they could be arrested if they tried to come to work this week. Only one ex-minister did, Josep Rull. He went to his office Monday morning, tweeted a photo of himself at his desk and then abruptly left amid word police were coming for him.
FRAYER: Supporters clapped as he fled the building surrounded by TV cameras. The deposed Catalan president, Carlos Puigdemont, posted a photo on Instagram from the window of his office with a smiley face emoji. He seemed to be suggesting he was inside. But how? The building was surrounded by police and journalists. No one spotted him going in. The sky in his photo was cloudy, suggesting it was taken on a different day. Was he playing games? As mystery and speculation swirled, Spain's top prosecutor, Jose Manuel Maza, spoke yesterday in Madrid...
JOSE MANUEL MAZA: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: ...Announcing he's pressing charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against Puigdemont and his former government. They carry penalties of up to 30 years in prison. Then news broke of another surreal twist; Puigdemont was not even in this country.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: He'd secretly fled Spain, traveling to France and then Belgium. In Brussels, he's reportedly hired a lawyer Paul Bekaert, a man who had defended Basque terrorists in the past, a detail that did not go down well with Spanish officials.
FERNANDO MARTINEZ MAILLO: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "This is nonsense, an act of desperation," a spokesman for Spain's ruling conservatives, Fernando Martinez Maillo, said of Puigdemont's sudden getaway. He took five of his government ministers with him, and they could all request asylum. Here in Barcelona, some of Puigdemont's supporters are angry. He led this separatist movement, declared independence, and now has he abandoned them?
LAIA LLOBET: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "He just up and left at the most important moment," says Laia Llobet, a Catalan schoolteacher. She wants Puigdemont to come back and run an election set for December 21st. Two civic leaders of the Catalan independence movement have already been arrested and charged with sedition. Llobet says it's unfair for Puigdemont amount to leave them behind languishing in jail.
LLOBET: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: Others are more sympathetic. Alberto de Ros, a Catalan engineer, says Puigdemont had no choice but to flee.
ALBERTO DE ROS: What do you want - Puigdemont to stay here and go to prison 30 years? For what? For saying Catalonia's independent? It is stupid.
FRAYER: Puigdemont is in Brussels today. It's unclear whether Belgium would protect him. Meanwhile, the Catalan regional police force Puigdemont used to command has now been placed under Madrid's control. And his photo is being taken down from the walls of police stations across Catalonia.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.