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Catalan leader says he isn't in Belgium to claim asylum, but rather for 'safety purposes and freedom'

Facing charges of rebellion following his region’s vote for independence, Catalonia’s ousted leader Carles Puigdemont has turned up in Brussels

Belgium Spain Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, pictured at this afternoon's news conference in Brussels Source: Olivier Matthys/PA Images

Updated 12.58pm

FORMER CATALAN LEADER Carles Puigdemont says he isn’t planning to demand asylum in Belgium, and is only in Brussels ‘for safety purposes’.

Puigdemont had fled Catalonia in the aftermath of Spain’s central government dissolving the regional parliament and effectively seizing control of the area.

This afternoon, Puigdemont broke his silence on his Belgian visit, telling a televised news conference he is in Belgium “for safety purposes and freedom”.

“I am not here in order to demand asylum,” he said, but declined to say how long he would stay.

He added that his region’s independence drive should “slow down” to avoid unrest as Madrid imposes direct rule on Catalonia, a move opposed by many.

“We can’t build a republic for all on violence,” he said, adding that if that meant “slowing down the development of the republic, then we must consider that a reasonable price to pay”.

Puigdemont likewise said he was willing to accept the ‘challenge’ of elections called for Catalonia on 21 December, adding that he would ‘respect’ the result. However, he called on Spain to likewise respect the result were it not to go the government’s way:

I want a clear commitment from the state. Will the state respect the results that could give separatist forces a majority?

Rebellion charges

Puigdemont spoke with a lawyer in Belgium yesterday as Spanish prosecutors sought rebellion charges against the region’s separatist leaders.

But Paul Bekaert, who specialises in asylum issues, said “Puigdemont is not in Belgium to request asylum”, only to prepare a legal riposte to any eventual moves by Madrid.

“On this matter (asylum) nothing has yet been decided,” he told Flemish television VRT.

“I spoke with him personally in Belgium… and he officially made me his lawyer.

“I have more than 30 years of experience with the extradition and political asylum for Spanish Basques, and it’s probably because of this experience that he came to me.”

Crisis in Catalonia A man waves a Catalonian flag. Source: DPA/PA Images

Spanish media outlets reported that Puigdemont was travelling with several members of his axed government.

Bekaert was one of the lawyers for Luis Maria Zengotitabengoa, a suspected member of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, whose extradition from Belgium to Spain was authorised in 2010.

Spain’s chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said he was seeking charges including rebellion — punishable by up to 30 years in prison — and sedition against the Catalan leaders who were sacked by Madrid on Friday.

Maza said they had “caused an institutional crisis that led to the unilateral declaration of independence carried out on 27 October with total contempt for our constitution.”

A court now has to decide whether to bring charges.

Threat of persecution?

Spain Catalonia A man holds a banner calling for Puigdemont to be imprisoned. Source: Emilio Morenatti

But several experts said it seemed unlikely that Puigdemont would be able to secure the status of political refugee in Belgium.

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“It’s quite exceptional to obtain asylum for a citizen of a European Union country,” Dirk Van Den Bulck of Belgium’s CGRA refugee agency told RTBF television.

He would have to prove a “threat of persecution” in his country of origin and an impossibility of being protected there, Van Den Bulck said, which would be a direct contradiction of “the respect of fundamental rights” required of all EU members.

Belgium’s immigration minister, a member of the Flemish separatist N-VA party, suggested Saturday that Puigdemont could receive asylum.

But Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel later poured cold water on the idea, and an N-VA spokesperson told AFP the party had not invited Puigdemont to Brussels.

Puigdemont maintains that the result of the banned independence referendum on October 1 gave the region’s parliament a mandate to declare Friday that it was breaking away from Spain.

Following this declaration, Madrid sacked Catalan’s leaders and took control of the semi-autonomous region under a previously unused “nuclear option” in the constitution.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called snap elections for December 21 to replace the Catalan parliament in a bid to stop the secessionist drive.

The European Union has largely spurned the independence declaration, and several EU institutions told AFP that no meetings are planned with Puigdemont in Brussels.

© – AFP 2017

First published 8.20am

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