Spain’s state prosecutor is seeking charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds against Catalan leaders involved in the region’s disputed independence bid that has thrown the country into political turmoil.
The prosecutor, Jose Manuel Maza, said a range of senior Catalan figures, including deposed President Carles Puigdemont and all members of his former cabinet, would face court after the Catalan parliament voted to issue a unilateral declaration of independence last week.
The leaders could face lengthy jail terms if charged and convicted. Rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds carry maximum terms of 30, 15 and six years, respectively.
Spanish media reported that Puigdemont and several members of his sacked government had left the country and were now in the Belgian capital, Brussels. His spokesperson told CNN he did not know of his whereabouts.
Belgium’s migration minister Theo Francken told reporters this week that his country would be legally required to consider Puigdemont’s request for political asylum if he made one.
Puigdemont did not attend a meeting of his Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) in Barcelona on Monday morning, nor was he seen at the Catalan government’s headquarters.
Maza said the Catalan leaders had “created an institutional crisis that culminated with the declaration of unilateral independence, with total disregard for our Constitution.” He said his office had filed documents with the High Court and Supreme Court, which will consider the charges.
A document laying out the charges says that several of the leaders had misused public funds by holding an independence referendum on October 1, which it described as illegal. Catalan leaders have argued that there is no legal way to give their people a choice on secession.
Madrid’s control tested
The announcement came as civil servants in Catalonia returned to work under the Spanish government’s control, following the week of political upheaval.
Madrid suspended the region’s autonomy and imposed direct rule after the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence on Friday in Barcelona.
Civil servants, including some who supported the independence bid, appeared to obey Madrid’s orders by carrying on as usual in their jobs. Ministers who had been removed from their positions stayed away from work, leaving the Catalan Government’s headquarters quiet Monday.
The parliament’s speaker, Carme Forcadell, said on Twitter that she would show up for work, as expected by Madrid, to oversee the transition of power until the December vote. “We continue working,” she wrote. Forcadell is among the leaders targeted by the state prosecutor.
Local armed police guarded the entrance to the government’s headquarters in Barcelona, in a sign that local security forces were working as normal. The two chiefs of the Catalan police were among those dismissed by Madrid.
The Catalan Police Prefecture circulated a letter over the weekend asking the local police force, the the Mossos d’Esquadra, to remain neutral.
Puigdemont’s next move
It was unclear what Puigdemont’s next moves would be. Taking control of Catalonia on Friday, Madrid dismissed the regional government, dissolved parliament and called new elections for December 21.
Puigdemont’s party, as well as the pro-independence Republican Left, have both said they will take part in the election. Before charges were filed against, him the Spanish government said Puigdemont would be eligible to stand.
Speaking at the weekend from his hometown of Girona, Puigdemont said that he still intended to build an independent country. He called on Catalans to opposed Madrid’s rule in a democratic, peaceful fashion.
Before the prosecutor’s announcement, Puigdemont posted a photograph on social media Monday that had been taken from inside the Catalan government’s building with the caption, “Good morning” in Catalan and a smiley face. The photo had been clearly taken on a previous day and there was no sign that had entered the building on Monday, causing confusion over his whereabouts.
Spain was plunged into it worst political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s after Catalonia held the independence referendum on October 1, 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%.
A new poll suggests 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.
The poll of 1,000 people in Catalonia was conducted by telephone on October 23 to 26, before the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence.
CNN’s Euan McKirdy and Tim Lister contributed to this report.