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Deposed Catalan leader 'not seeking asylum in Belgium'

Posted October 31, 2017 4:19 a.m. EDT
Updated October 31, 2017 8:32 a.m. EDT

— Catalonia's deposed leader Carles Puigdemont said that he was not in Brussels to apply for political asylum, in his first public remarks since Spain filed charges over his independence crusade.

Making a statement in which he slammed the Spanish government as violent and oppressive, Puigdemont said that he had traveled to Brussels to be able to "act with freedom and safety."

"I am not here to demand political asylum. I am here in Brussels as the capital of Europe," he told reporters at the Belgian press club.

His comments come just hours after his lawyer, Paul Bakaert, told CNN that Puigdemont was mulling applying for protection in the country.

Members of his former government traveled with him, Bakaert said.

Puigdemont arrived in Brussels Monday, the same day that chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said he would seek charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against the ousted leader and several members of his former government. The charge of rebellion carries a maximum jail term of 30 years.

Spain has endured a month-long political firestorm since Catalonia held an independence referendum on October 1. The dispute came to a head on Friday last week, when the Catalan parliament declared unilateral independence, prompting Madrid to sack the region's government and impose direct rule.

Begium's Secretary of State and Immigration Theo Francken suggested last week that an asylum application from Puigdemont and any other Catalan leader would be considered fairly, in comments that have caused a rift in Begium's government.

Belgium has the most open policy in the European Union for considering asylum applications from other EU nationals.

An agreement signed by all EU member states in 1997, the Amsterdam Treaty, makes it is near impossible for EU nationals to apply for asylum in another one of the bloc's countries. The rationale is that each member state should uphold the same human rights standards.

While Belgium is signatory to the wide-spanning treaty, it is the only country that included an opt-out clause to the section on asylum, saying it would "carry out an individual examination of any asylum request made."

Brussels visit 'symbolic'

Speculation over Puigdemont's whereabouts arose Monday, when Madrid's control of the region began in earnest, after he did not show up to a party meeting in Barcelona. He added to the speculation by posting a photo to social media implying he was inside the Catalan government headquarters. The photo was taken on a previous day.

Puigdemont's lawyer, Bakaert, earlier denied to reporters in Brussels that Puigdemont was in hiding.

"First of all because it's the capital of Europe, he is here legally, completely legal and he has the right to come here. He is not hiding here -- better to be in Brussels than Barcelona. It is a symbol to come to Brussels," he said.

Madrid has called fresh elections for Catalonia on December 21 and Puigdmeont may try to contest them in exile.

Senior officials in Madrid had claimed that Puigdemont could run in the election, but at the same time quipped that he would likely be charged at the time for rebellion, or could even be in prison.

Before the state prosecutor spoke of charges against Puigdemont, the ousted leader appeared defiant, saying he still intended to build an independent country and wanted Catalans to oppose Madrid's rule in a democratic, peaceful fashion.

A Catalan crisis

The independence bid has plunged Spain into it worst political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s, after Catalonia held the October 1 referendum, which Madrid and the country's top court called illegal. Puigdemont said that the vote gave him a mandate to declare independence.

Some 90% voted in favor of independence in the disputed referendum earlier this month, but turnout was only 43%.

It has also been deeply divisive. Hundreds of thousands of people have protested in Barcelona both for and against independence.

A recent poll that surveyed 1,000 people showed that political parties backing independence would not win a majority if elections were held today.

Pro-independence parties would get 61 to 65 seats in the region's parliament, short of a majority in the 135-seat assembly, the Sigma Dos poll suggests. The poll was published Sunday in El Mundo, which has run editorials opposing independence.

Pro-independence parties had 72 seats in the parliament before it was dissolved.