Catalan Leader Claims Spanish Witch Hunt as Rajoy Treads Warily

(Bloomberg) -- Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont remained defiantly in self-imposed exile and condemned Spanish authorities for staging a witch hunt against him and his cohorts.

The entire Catalan leadership is due in Madrid to face allegations of sedition after its doomed declaration of independence on Oct. 27 and officials could face up to 30 years in prison. In a statement from Brussels late on Wednesday, Puigdemont called it a "political trial" without legal basis and with disproportionate penalties usually reserved for murder or terrorism.

It leaves Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy having to manage his political victory over the rebel region without making political martyrs of the Catalans. The spectacle of a democratically elected government in court -- and then in jail -- may be the last thing Rajoy wants as he seeks to bring Spain’s economic powerhouse back into the fold. 

His government has so far adopted a light-touch approach to its takeover of the previously autonomous Catalan administration, a move that brought an end to Spain’s biggest constitutional crisis since a coup in 1981. Voices of moderation and patience are also in the ascendancy in Barcelona as Catalans look toward elections on Dec. 21 that will decide the future course of the separatist campaign.

“Strict measures from Madrid are not going to help because they will push more people into the independence camp and nothing gets solved,” said Caroline Gray, a lecturer in politics and Spanish at Aston University in the U.K. who specializes in nationalist movements. “Madrid will be making a mistake if it doesn’t make an effort to convince people there’s an alternative.”

Staying Put

Puigdemont, 54, and his entire deposed cabinet, are due in the National Court in Madrid on Thursday and Friday. He spent much of this week in Belgium defending his actions.

In Wednesday’s statement, Puigdemont said some of his entourage would return to Madrid to attend court to protest the allegations. "Another group of ministers will remain in Brussels to denounce this political trial before the international community and to urge Europe to face a solution to the conflict in dialogue," he said.

The judge can either issue a new subpoena to appear at a future date or order an arrest, said Carlos Gomez-Jara, a Madrid-based criminal law professor and lawyer. If they do appear, the prosecutor will have to decide whether to ask the judge to have them arrested pending the trial.

While the defense would argue that they have returned to Spain to face justice, the fact they fled in the first place might work against them, according to Gomez-Jara. If Puigdemont flouts the new summons, the judge could seek to force him back with a European arrest warrant.

“If the law isn’t applied then you are encouraging people to do the same thing again -- it’s not about the state having its revenge,” Gomez-Jara said. “The issue is that what they did was wrong and there is a process that speaks to certain consequences.”

Softly, Softly

Puigdemont held a makeshift independence referendum on Oct. 1 in defiance of the government and courts. Rajoy sent riot police to beat voters and shut down illegal polling stations.

That response helped build momentum for the cause, culminating last Friday when Catalan lawmakers voted to declare a breakaway from the rest of Spain after Puigdemont failed to win any concessions from Madrid and was engulfed by the hardcore separatists in parliament and on the streets.

Rajoy swiftly used emergency powers to seize control of the new Catalan Republic before it was even off the ground after building support in parliament for his crackdown.

Read More: Catalan Chess Game Gives Rajoy Mastery With Endgame Unclear

But while the prime minister’s action was unprecedented, it has also been more restrained than some predicted.

He didn’t take over the regional television station TV3, and the approach on the ground in Barcelona has been for the Spanish authorities to keep a low profile. Madrid’s representatives are focused on keeping services running rather than making decisions, officials said this week, and the stand-in president has remained in Madrid.

Divided People

Catalonia’s 7.5 million people remain deeply divided over the relationship they should have with Spain. The semi-autonomous government, which has control of police, health and schools, will be restored after the December election. But it doesn’t control the tax take that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s total.

There’s the suggestion there are some regrets in the pro-independence camp over its strategy, while others are planning a demonstration in Barcelona on Thursday.

Marta Pascal, a senior member of Puigdemont’s party, said the group had “thought it would be easy and it wasn’t.” A leaked memo showed that an aide to Oriol Junqueras, the ousted vice president whose party led the independence charge long before it became mainstream, said that “anyone with two brain cells knows” the government wasn’t in a position to declare independence.

Junqueras himself said in an opinion piece for the New York Times that the strategy should be "to gradually establish a new framework of freedoms.”

Support for independence stands at about 40 percent, according to polls. But Catalans overwhelmingly want the chance to vote in an official referendum, as the Scots did in 2014. That’s inconceivable for Rajoy.

“One side wants independence, the other is refusing it, so what can they talk about?” said Jorge Maggio, 50, who manages a newspaper shop on the central La Rambla avenue. “Dialogue is impossible, it is a lie. I voted and I will vote again on Dec. 21, but what’s the point?”

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