BRUSSELS (AP) — Catalonia’s ousted leader vowed Tuesday to prolong the fight for independence from Spain and urged the European Union to speak out over the jailing of Catalan officials in a rebellion case.
Carles Puigdemont’s comments came at a campaign-style rally in Belgium’s capital attended by around 200 mayors from Catalonia who greeted the deposed president with chants of “president” and “freedom.”
The mayors raised their walking sticks, a symbol of mayoral power in Spain, in the air at the end of his speech and the crowd sang the Catalan anthem.
“We will never renounce this ideal of a country, of this notion of democracy,” Puigdemont told the mayors, gathered in a central Brussels art museum.
Flanked by four associates who fled Spain with him, Puigdemont challenged the Spanish authorities and international community to accept the results of a snap Catalan election on Dec. 21 if separatists win.
Puigdemont and his colleagues could face 30 years in jail in Spain on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement if Belgian justice authorities agree to extradite them. Nine former Catalan government members have already been sent to jail in Spain. One of them was released on bail during the investigation.
“We are the legitimate government of Catalonia and we are going to carry on,” former regional government member Meritxell Serret told the audience, her voice breaking with emotion.
Puigdemont also challenged the European Union to finally make its voice heard. Catalan officials at the Brussels event Tuesday urged European Union leaders to take up the Catalan cause.
“Is this the Europe you want, is this the Europe you want to build, with a democratically elected government in jail?” he said before a group of mayors held up big letters spelling “Help Catalonia.”
The leaders of all the EU’s main institutions are party allies of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. They have refused to criticize his government, and only reacted very cautiously to police violence during the Oct. 1 independence referendum in Catalonia.
Hours earlier, Puigdemont did an interview in Brussels with Catalan public radio.
The separatist leader said that there is an “absolute disconnect between the interests of the people and the European elites” and that Catalonia’s problem is an “issue of human rights that requires maximum attention.”
Puigdemont is fighting extradition to Spain, where other members of the ousted Cabinet have been sent to jail while awaiting the results of a probe for allegedly implementing a strategy to secede from Spain. His next hearing before a Belgian court is on Nov. 17.
Catalan independence is now the second cause of concern for Spaniards, behind unemployment and ahead of corruption, according to the latest government-run poll. Before the illegal independence referendum that deepened the political crisis, the issue was only ninth in the ranking of concerns by the CIS survey.
Spanish central authorities are now in direct control of the northeastern region, where the early election next month is shaping into a tight race between separatist and pro-union forces.
The civil society group that spearheaded the Catalan endeavor for secession from Spain on Tuesday called for the region’s separatist political parties to run in a “unified pro-independence ticket.” In a statement, Assemblea Nacional Catalana said such a joint coalition should include jailed separatist activists and the members of the deposed Catalan Cabinet as candidates.
The parties have until midnight Tuesday to register an interest in forming coalitions.
“We don’t have any other alternative but to run all of us together,” Puigdemont said in a tweet.
A recent poll by the Barcelona-based La Vanguardia newspaper predicted that the three pro-secession parties would win between 66 and 69 seats in December. Sixty-eight seats are needed for a majority.
Pro-secession parties held a slim majority in the Catalan Parliament before it was dissolved by Spanish authorities after lawmakers passed a declaration of independence on Oct. 27.
Catalonia’s opposition leader, Ines Arrimadas, said Tuesday she hoped that disillusionment among pro-independence supporters would help her Ciutadans (Citizens) party and other pro-Spanish unity groups to band together and oust the pro-secessionists.
Meanwhile, judges are also gauging possible rebellion charges against the former Catalan separatist officials and lawmakers who made the vote possible. Eight former Cabinet members including the ousted regional vice president have been jailed, one of them released on bail and five more, including Puigdemont, are in Belgium where they plan to campaign while fighting extradition to Spain.
Six lawmakers, including the regional parliament’s speaker Carme Forcadell, could also be sent to jail as soon as Thursday after they testify before a Supreme Court judge on a similar probe. They also face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement.
Catalan separatist parties are planning to include some of the officials in ballots as a way to draw more attention to a situation that they consider unjust. Lawyers are also arguing that the officials should be spared jail before trial because running for a parliamentary seat means that they have no intention of fleeing the country.
By LORNE COOK, ARITZ PARRA and CIARAN GILES, Associated Press
Aritz Parra and Ciaran Giles reported from Madrid. Barry Hatton contributed to this story from Lisbon, Portugal.