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4 Catalan separatists kept in jail as campaigning begins

December 05, 2017

MADRID (AP) — Political parties in Catalonia, including candidates either in jail or out of the country to avoid arrest, started campaigning at midnight Monday for the early regional elections called by Spain’s government seeking to quash the Catalan independence movement.

The highly polarized Catalan parliament elections set for Dec. 21 is shaping up as a close fight between Catalans who support secession and those who favor remaining in Spain. Voters are choosing regional lawmakers and top government officials to replace the pro-independence officials removed by the national government in late October.

Hours before pro-secession parties held evening rallies to launch their campaigns, a Supreme Court judge in Madrid ruled that four prominent members of the region’s independence movement must remain jailed without bail. They include former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who heads the slate of the left-republican ERC party. Junqueras was unseated in late October along with former President Carles Puigdemont and the rest of Puigdemont’s Cabinet after regional lawmakers passed a declaration of independence that Spanish authorities deemed illegal.

Six other Catalan politicians who had been jailed with Junqueras since early November were released late Monday after the posting of 100,000-euro ($118,000) bail set earlier for them by a Supreme Court judge.

Meanwhile, Puigdemont and four of his separatist allies learned Monday that a decision on Spain’s request for their extraditions from Belgium will be made Dec. 14. That is one week before the elections, in which Puigdemont is leading his pro-independence party’s ticket as its presidential candidate.

However, a final decision may not come until well after the election because of appeals. The five Catalan officials fled to Belgium and are refusing to return to Spain to face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement over the push for independence. The charges carry maximum penalties of decades in prison.

Puigdemont’s Belgian defense lawyer, Paul Bekaert, insisted there are no grounds for extradition because the Spanish charges were not punishable in Belgium. “We also highlighted the danger for the impediment of their human rights in Spain,” Bekaert said.

Hours after the judge postponed deciding his fate, Puigdemont addressed a political rally in Catalonia via video conference at the official midnight kickoff of the campaign. Puigdemont told the other candidates running for his Together for Catalonia list that the vote should be “the second part” of the referendum that his government held on secession Oct. 1 despite it being banned by Spain’s highest court.

“The results of Oct. 1 are still valid,” Puigdemont told Catalan public television TV3. “There are many of us who don’t give the Spanish government the authority to dissolve a legitimate legislature.”

The Spanish government has said the early election is an attempt to find a democratic way out of the nation’s worst crisis in nearly four decades. Polls predict a close race between the pro- and anti-independence camps.

A government-run poll published Monday indicated that pro-independence parties would lose their slim majority in Catalonia’s parliament. It had ERC, Together for Catalonia and the far-left anti-establishment CUP party winning 66 or 67 of the parliament’s 135 seats.

The poll forecast a boost for the anti-independence Citizens party, which could dispute the victory with the pro-secession ERC. “The secession movement is a black hole that has swallowed everything up in recent years,” Ines Arrimadas, Citizens’ leading candidate, told TV3. “We have it in our hands to end the independence movement and start a new era for Catalonia.”

The CIS survey said the poll had a margin of error of two percentage points. The poll of 3,000 people was conducted by telephone Nov. 23-27. Before campaigning officially started, Catalan pro-independence groups held protests in front of town halls to oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to keep some of the independence movement’s leaders in custody.

Pilar Gonzalez, 76, said while walking her dog in Barcelona that the jailed Catalan political leaders were “political prisoners.” But 53-year-old contractor Jose Luis Aguirre said the attempt to unilaterally break away from Spain “is an act that cannot be allowed.”

In the hope of being freed, Junqueras and the other jailed politicians pledged last week to give up on efforts to seek unilateral independence for the wealthy northeastern region. But Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena said Monday that it remains to be seen if Junqueras’ pledge was “truthful and real.”

ERC spokeswoman Marta Rovira described the jailing as “a covert attempt” by Spain’s central authorities in Madrid to get ERC out of the picture before this month’s voting. “This is a very clear attempt to win these elections without political adversaries,” she said.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido was unmoved by the arguments of Junqueras’ supporters. “Those who commit criminal acts must place themselves at the mercy of legal rulings,” Zoido said. The Supreme Court judge also upheld custody orders without bail for the former regional interior minister, Joaquim Forn, and the leaders of Assemblea Nacional Catalan and Omnium Cultural, two grassroots groups that have been the main drivers of the separatist bid.

Puigdemont and the other separatist leaders claim a mandate for independence from the Oct. 1 referendum, which was boycotted by parties against secession. The vote drew 43 percent of the electorate, failed to meet international standards, and was marred by police raids.

Spain’s constitution says that the nation is “indivisible” and that matters of national sovereignty pertain to its national parliament in Madrid, where Catalan secessionists are represented.

Associated Press writer Aritz Parra reported this story in Madrid and AP writer Raf Casert reported from Brussels. AP writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.

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Huge rally in Barcelona demands jailed separatists’ release

November 11, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people backing Catalonia’s bid to secede from Spain packed the streets in downtown Barcelona Saturday to demand the release of jailed separatist leaders.

The rally’s grassroots organizers called for 10 prominent members of the secessionist movement in the northeastern Spanish region to be freed from prison. Eight former members of Catalonia’s dissolved Cabinet and two activists are in jail while Spanish authorities investigate their alleged roles in promoting an illegal declaration of independence last month in violation of Spain’s Constitution.

A separate court in Madrid granted bail on Thursday to another six Catalan lawmakers also being investigated over the secession push. “We want to tell the world that we want freedom for our prisoners and freedom for Catalonia,” Agusti Alcoberro, the vice president of grassroots group National Catalan Assembly, told the crowd in Barcelona, the region’s capital.

Barcelona’s police said 750,000 people attended the rally. Many of the protesters carried pro-independence “estelada” flags, with its white star and blue triangle superimposed over the traditional red-and-yellow Catalan colors. Many also held signs saying in Catalan “Freedom Political Prisoners” and wore yellow ribbons as a symbol of their demands.

“They (Spanish authorities) are violating many rights of freedom against our people and we come here to say that we are against that and to demand the release of our prisoners who are in prison unjustly,” said 30-year-old engineer Joan Carles Roses.

Family members of the jailed separatists read messages from their loved ones to the crowd at the conclusion of the march. Also on Saturday, the pro-independence Republic Left party announced that its jailed leader Oriol Junqueras will be its top candidate for the upcoming regional elections on Dec. 21. The Catalan party is including other jailed leaders in its list for the regional parliament. Polls show that Republic Left is favored to win the upcoming ballot, although it won’t secure an outright majority.

The Catalan conflict is the worst constitutional crisis to threaten Spain in nearly four decades. A day after Catalonia’s Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Oct. 27, Spain’s government activated extraordinary powers given to it by the Senate to fire the region’s government, dissolve its parliament and call local elections.

While those separatist leaders now in jail obeyed a summons to appear in court in Madrid, deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four of his former ministers fled to Belgium, where they now await an extradition hearing to return them to Spain.

Addressing the rally in Barcelona via a video message shown on a large screen, Puigdemont said: “We need you all to be very active. We want to hear your voice, both those of us in Brussels and those in prison.”

Puigdemont and his fellow separatists claim that a referendum on secession held on Oct. 1 gave them a mandate for independence, even though it had been prohibited by the nation’s highest court, failed to meet international standards and was boycotted by anti-independence parties. Less than half of the electorate turned out to vote, and the referendum was also disrupted by brutal police raids.

No foreign power has recognized Catalonia’s claim to independence. The European Union has warned that an independent Catalonia would be cast out of the 28-nation bloc. The most recent regional elections and opinion polls show that Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents are roughly split over remaining a part of Spain or going their own way. Most pro-independence supporters feel that the Catalan language and culture would have a better chance of flourishing in a separate state and that their economic prospects would be improved.

The business sector has so far not been convinced, with over 2,000 companies transferring their headquarters out of the northeastern region in recent weeks for fears of being pushed out of the common EU market.

The Spanish Constitution says the nation is “indivisible” and that questions of national sovereignty should be addressed by the national Parliament in Madrid.

AP television producer Hernan Munoz contributed to this report.

Ousted Caracas mayor reaches Spain after fleeing Venezuela

November 18, 2017

MADRID (AP) — The ousted mayor of Caracas pledged to spread his protest against Venezuela’s socialist government across the world as he arrived in Spain on Saturday, a day after escaping from house arrest and slipping past security forces into Colombia.

After embracing his wife and two daughters with a Venezuela flag draped over his shoulder, Antonio Ledezma said he was going to continue to fight Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exile. “I am going to dedicate myself to traveling the world, to spread the hope of all Venezuelans to escape this regime, this dictatorship,” Ledezma said. “Venezuela isn’t on the verge of an abyss, it has fallen into the abyss.”

Maduro, for his part, called Ledezma a “vampire flying around the world.” Ledezma, 62, was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust Maduro. He was one of the leaders of anti-government in protests that rocked Venezuela in 2014 that also led to the jailing of other prominent opponents, including his former cellmate Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

Ledezma’s flight from Bogota landed early Saturday in Madrid where besides his family, he was greeted by the former president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, and the former Venezuelan ambassador, Fernando Gerbasi.

Ledezma said he “felt freedom” upon touching Spanish soil and hopes to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy before starting his global tour. He did not say what countries he plans to visit. “Venezuela is completely collapsing. We can’t wait any longer,” he said. “We don’t have any resources left, only our morale.”

Ledezma told The Associated Press on Friday that his decision to flee was driven by threats intended to force the opposition to resume negotiations with Maduro’s government. After slipping past intelligence police officers stationed 24 hours a day outside his residence, he passed through several police checkpoints in a long journey by car to Colombia. Colombian immigration authorities said Ledezma entered the country legally across the Simon Bolivar Bridge.

Ledezma, who thanked both Spanish and Colombian authorities for what he described as their warm welcomes, was elated after his escape. “I’ve lived out a James Bond movie,” Ledemza said. “I made this route of more than 24 hours, passing 29 control points, checkpoints, crossing paths, accepting all the risks, and in every moment I always thought about the value of freedom.”

Catalonia strike is muted but protesters block roads, trains

November 08, 2017

MADRID (AP) — A general strike in Catalonia was muted Wednesday, but pro-independence protesters blocked roads and stopped trains in Spain’s northeastern region to protest the jailing of ousted Catalan government officials and secessionist activists.

Big traffic jams were reported on roads leading to Catalan cities, including the regional capital Barcelona, and on major highways. But the strike wasn’t backed by Spain’s two main unions and wasn’t reported to be having any major effect on industry or in the region’s prized tourism sector.

National railway operator Renfe said services were halted on dozens of local lines as protesters blocked railway lines. Several national high-speed lines were also affected. In northern Girona, several protesters pushed past police controls to enter the city’s main railway station. Later, dozens of others occupied the tracks.

Intersindical CSC, a platform of pro-independence workers’ unions, had called the strike for labor issues. But separatist parties and civil society groups asked workers to join the stoppage to protest the Spanish government’s moves against the Catalan bid for independence.

At mid-day, several thousand pro-independence protesters packed a central square in Barcelona, waving separatist flags and chanting “Freedom” for the 10 people in custody in a judicial probe into rebellion and sedition in the days before and after Catalonia’s parliament ignored Spanish court rulings and declared independence Oct. 27.

Six hours later, thousands gathered again to keep up the pressure on the Madrid-based national government. Some shouted, “Free the political prisoners.” Agusti Alcoberro, the vice president of the grassroots Catalan National Assembly told the midday crowd the arrests were “an attack on democracy and a humiliation” of Catalan people.

Spanish authorities took the unprecedented step of seizing control of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, after a majority of regional lawmakers there ignored Constitutional Court orders and passed an independence declaration on Oct. 27.

Spain removed the regional government, dissolved the parliament and called a new regional election for next month. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Wednesday the elections should open “a new political era” in the region with the return to normality and respect for Spain’s laws.

Eight members of the dismissed Catalan Cabinet and two activists were sent to jail as a Spanish court studies possible charges of rebellion and sedition against them. Former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and four of his aides have fled to Brussels, where they are fighting Spanish arrest and extradition orders.

Their presence in the European capital is sowing divisions within the Belgian government. Some Belgian lawmakers have criticized Prime Minister Charles Michel for not taking tougher action against Puigdemont, and others complain that the Catalan leader’s presence was inflaming Flemish separatists in Belgium.

Speaking to Belgian lawmakers on Wednesday, Michel refused to comment on Puigdemont’s political actions, saying that his case must be handled by judicial authorities alone. “Mr. Puigdemont is a European citizen who must be held accountable for his actions just like any other European citizens — with rights and obligations but no privileges,” he said.

Michel also stressed that the Spanish government remains his partner. Catalonia, with 7.5 million people, represents a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product and polls show its people roughly evenly divided over independence. Puigdemont claimed a banned Oct. 1 secession referendum gave it a mandate to declare independence.

Lorne Cook reported from Brussels. Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this story.

Spain issues arrest warrant for ousted Catalan leader, aides

November 03, 2017

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant on Friday for former members of the Catalan Cabinet who were last seen in Brussels, including the ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who said he was prepared to run for his old job even while battling extradition in Belgium.

The National Court judge filed the request with the Belgian prosecutor to detain Puigdemont and his four aides, and issued separate international search and arrest warrants to alert Interpol in case they flee Belgium.

Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer did not answer calls requesting comment, but has said that his client will fight extradition to Spain without seeking political asylum. Belgian federal prosecutors said they had received the arrest warrant and could question Puigdemont in coming days.

“We will study it, and put it in the hands of an investigating judge,” spokesman Eric Van Der Sijpt told The Associated Press. “We are not in any hurry.” Puigdemont and the four others are being sought for five different crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement in a Spanish investigation into their roles in pushing for secession for Catalonia.

The officials flew to Brussels after Spanish authorities removed Puigdemont and his Cabinet from office on Saturday for declaring independence for Catalonia. The Spanish government has also called an early regional election for Dec. 21.

Puigdemont told Belgian state broadcaster that he was in Belgium “ready to be a candidate” in the early polls and because he had lost faith in the Spanish justice system. “We can run a campaign anywhere because we’re in a globalized world,” he told RTBF, adding that he was not in Belgium to “Belgianize Catalan politics.”

“I did not flee, but it’s impossible to properly prepare” a legal defense while in Spain, he told the broadcaster. If Belgium acts on the international warrant issued by Spain and arrests him, Puigdemont would have to be brought before an investigating judge within 24 hours. His extradition procedure would take 15 days, Belgian legal experts say. But should Puigdemont appeal, that process could take a further 45 days, meaning that he would probably not leave Belgium before early January, well after the elections.

In her decision on Friday, Judge Carmen Lamela said that Puigdemont “apparently is in Belgium” and accused him of “leading the mobilization of the pro-independence sectors of the population to act in support of the illegal referendum and thus the secession process outside the legal channels to reform the constitution.”

Spain says the only legal way to achieve secession is by reforming Spain’s 1978 Constitution with an ample majority in the national parliament. The constitution says the country is “indivisible” and doesn’t allow regional votes on sovereignty.

The arrest warrant came a day after the same judge jailed nine former members of Puigdemont’s separatist government. All members of the ousted Cabinet were ordered to appear at Spain’s National Court on Thursday to answer questions in a rebellion investigation. Five of them, including Puigdemont, didn’t show up.

Spanish prosecutors want to charge members of the dismissed regional government —as well as six additional members of the regional parliament— for promoting official steps to declaring Catalonia’s independence.

Meanwhile, a panel of National Court judges on Friday rejected an appeal seeking the release of two separatist activists who were jailed last month in a separate sedition investigation. A National Court spokesman said the president of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, Jordi Sanchez, and Omnium Cultural leader Jordi Cuixart will remain in a Madrid jail while the investigation continues. The spokesman spoke on condition of anonymity in line with court policy.

Sanchez and Cuixart are being investigated for allegedly orchestrating protests that hindered a judicial investigation to halt preparations for a banned independence referendum held on Oct. 1. Under Spain’s legal system, investigating judges can have suspects detained while a comprehensive probe, sometimes taking months, determines if they should be charged.

Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo deflected questions by the media regarding the jailing of the Catalan officials. The separation of powers meant that the government’s focus was on preparing for the early election it called for Catalonia, Mendez de Vigo said.

“What the government guarantees is that there will be elections where the parties that want to run can present their programs, and we hope that the election can end this period of uncertainty and the deterioration of harmonious coexistence in Catalonia,” he said.

One of the nine jailed Catalan officials, ex-regional minister for business Santi Vila, posted bail of 50,000 euros ($58,000) and was released from custody on Friday. His passport was confiscated and Vila needs to show up in court regularly as the rebellion, sedition and embezzlement probe continues.

The other eight were held without having bail set. “I ask for all political parties across Spain, appealing to their democratic values, to put an end to this terrible situation that has put politicians in prison,” Vila said as he left the Estremera prison near Madrid.

Vila resigned in protest a day before Catalonia’s parliament voted in favor of the independence declaration. He has said he wants to lead the center-right separatist Democratic Party of Catalonia in the upcoming election on a moderate platform.

Puigdemont and his Cabinet were removed by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who used extraordinary constitutional authority authorized by the Spanish Senate to depose the separatists, dissolve the regional legislature and call the early regional election.

Spain’s Supreme Court is also investigating six members of Catalonia’s parliament. The court postponed a hearing Thursday until next week to allow more time for them to prepare their defenses in the case.

In all, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Cook reported from Brussels. Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.

Spain judge jails Catalan ministers, mulls leader’s arrest

November 03, 2017

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish judge jailed nine former members of Catalonia’s separatist government Thursday and was deliberating a possible international arrest warrant for the region’s ousted president, who remained in Belgium while the others appeared in a Madrid court for questioning about their efforts to break away from Spain.

Former President Carles Puigdemont and his 13-member Cabinet are being investigated for rebellion, sedition and embezzlement stemming from their pursuit of Catalan independence. The Spanish government removed them from office on Oct. 27 and they were summoned to appear in Spain’s National Court on Thursday.

After the nine Catalan Cabinet members who showed up were questioned, a judge sent eight of them to jail without bail. One was ordered held in lieu of 50,000 euros ($58,300) in bail. The seven men and two women were taken from the court in police vans hours later and assigned to prisons in the Madrid area.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Catalan towns to condemn the pre-charge detentions, which fellow separatist politicians and elected officials criticized as an attack on ideas. “We won’t give up, we won’t fail, we will fight till the end,” Marta Rovira, an increasingly prominent politician in Catalonia’s republican-left ERC party, said.

“We have all the right in the world to live in a country with more justice, dignity and freedom,” she told reporters as tear welled in her eyes. The Spanish government said it does not comment on judges’ decisions in deference to the separation of powers.

Investigative magistrate Carmen Lamela ordered the officials into custody at the request of prosecutors, who also asked Thursday for an international warrant seeking Puigdemont’s arrest. Under Spain’s legal system, investigating judges can have suspects detained while a comprehensive probe, sometimes taking months, determines if they should be charged.

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.

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, Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

In a written ruling, the National Court judge said the eight jailed without bail had planned and executed a roadmap since 2015 to create an independent Catalan republic. The ruling said the activities of those under investigation were “meditated and perfectly prepared and organized, repeatedly disobeying systematically over two years Constitutional Court resolutions in favor of the independence.”

The judge said the eight were being jailed without the possibility of bail because of the risk of them fleeing prosecution or hiding or destroying evidence. Lawyers for the jailed officials said they planned to appeal Lamela’s order. Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, who represents Puigdemont 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,” which translates to “The Reapers” in English.

Spain took the unprecedented step of triggering constitutional powers allowing it to take over running Catalonia following a declaration of independence by the regional parliament on Oct. 27. Madrid dismissed the Catalan Cabinet, dissolved the parliament and called a new regional election for Dec. 21.

Junqueras, in a tweet sent shortly after the judge’s decision, called on Catalans to cast ballots to defeat unionists. “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.”

Puigdemont, also in a tweet, wrote that “the legitimate government of Catalonia has been jailed for its ideas.” 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.”

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.

Sylvain Plazy in Belgium, Paolo Santalucia in Madrid, and Elena Becatoros in Barcelona, contributed to this report.

Spain seeks rebellion charges against fired Catalan leaders

October 30, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain’s state prosecutor said Monday that he would seek charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against members of Catalonia’s ousted secessionist government, pushing the crisis over the region’s independence declaration into an uncertain new phase.

Chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said he would ask judges for preventive measures against the politicians and the governing body of the Catalan parliament that allowed a vote to declare independence last week. He didn’t specify if those would include their immediate arrest and detention before trial.

The rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges carry maximum sentences of 30, 15 and six years in prison, respectively. It wasn’t immediately clear when judges would rule on the prosecutors’ request.

Maza didn’t name any of those facing charges, but they include regional leader Carles Puigdemont, his No. 2 Oriol Junqueras and Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell. The announcement came as Catalonia’s civil servants returned to work for the first time since Spain dismissed the separatist regional government and imposed direct control.

In addition to the sedition charges, Spain’s government has said the fired leaders could be charged with usurping others’ functions if they attempt to carry on working. Puigdemont traveled to Brussels, according to a Spanish government an official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to be named in media reports. The trip came after Belgian Asylum State Secretary Theo Francken said over the weekend that it would be “not unrealistic” for Puigdemont to request asylum.

The uncertainty over Puigdemont’s whereabouts and his plans continued the game of political cat-and-mouse with which the Catalan leader has tormented the central government. Also Monday, Puigdemont’s party indicated it is ready to fight in the Dec. 21 early regional election called by the national government, scotching fears the pro-independence parties might boycott the ballot to deny it legitimacy. The center-right PDeCAT party vowed to defeat pro-union political forces in Catalonia.

As dozens of journalists, curious onlookers and bemused tourists gathered in the square outside the Gothic government palace in central Barcelona, residents expressed confusion about who was actually in charge of Catalonia.

“I don’t know — the Catalan government says they are in charge, but the Spanish government says they are,” said Cristina Guillen, an employee in a nearby bag shop. “So I have no idea, really. “What I really think is that nobody is in charge right now,” she said.

At least one portrait of Puigdemont was still hanging on a wall inside the Catalan government’s Generalitat building. At least one member of the ousted government defied his dismissal by showing up at work and posting a photo on Twitter from his formal office.

“In the office, exercising the responsibilities entrusted to us by the people of Catalonia,” said Josep Rull, who until last week was the region’s top official in charge of territorial affairs. Two police officers entered and left the building, followed minutes later by Rull, who told reporters and supporters that he would continue carrying out his agenda.

But there were no official events listed on the regional government’s public agenda that is published online daily. Meanwhile, the two separatist parties in the former Catalan governing coalition held separate meetings to decide their next move.

Spanish authorities say deposed officials will be allowed to take their personal belongings from official buildings, but are barred from performing any official duties. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said Monday that the government was giving the separatist politicians “a few hours” of time because the goal was “to recover normality in a discreet way and under the principle of minimal intervention” from central authorities.

Catalonia’s regional parliament proclaimed independence from Spain in a secret ballot Friday. The Spanish government dissolved the legislature, fired the government and regional police chief and called a new election for Dec. 21.

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said Sunday that Puigdemont would be eligible to run in the election, provided he is not imprisoned. “I don’t know what kind of judicial activity will happen between now and Dec. 21. If he is not put in jail at that time I think he is not ineligible,” Dastis told The Associated Press, speaking before prosecutors announced they were seeking charges.

The vote to secede came after an Oct. 1 referendum in favor of independence that was deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court. Puigdemont has vowed peaceful and “democratic opposition” to his Cabinet’s dismissal, but he hasn’t clarified if that means accepting an early regional election as a way out of the deadlock.

Separatist parties and grassroots groups have spoken of waging a campaign of disobedience to hamper the efforts by central authorities to run the region. A key factor will be how Catalonia’s estimated 200,000 public workers react to their bosses’ dismissal, and whether any stay away from work in protest.

Secession moves by this wealthy northeastern region of 7.5 million have tipped Spain into its deepest crisis in decades. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took part in an anti-independence demonstration in Barcelona, calling for Catalonia to remain in Spain and backing Rajoy’s use of unprecedented constitutional powers to wrest control from the pro-independence regional administration.

Spanish financial markets rose Monday after a poll suggested more Catalans oppose the declaration of independence than support it. The Ibex 35 stock index was up 1.4 percent at 10,338 points, about as much as it had fallen on Friday. Spanish government bonds were also higher.

Jill Lawless in Barcelona, and Carlo Piovano in London, contributed to this story.

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