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article imageCourt ruling pressures ex-Catalan leader to return to Spain

By Daniel SILVA (AFP)     Jan 28, 2018 in World

Catalonia's sacked separatist leader Carles Puigdemont was under pressure Sunday to return to Spain if he wants to form a new government after the country's top court ruled he could not govern the region from abroad.

Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium in October after the Catalan parliament declared independence, would shortly ask the Supreme Court for permission to attend a debate and vote in the regional parliament on Tuesday, a lawmaker with his Together for Catalonia party, Josep Rull, told Catalan radio.

The newly elected speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, last week named Puigdemont as the candidate to head the Catalan government after separatist parties again won an absolute majority in a December regional election.

But he faces arrest for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds as soon as he returns over his attempt to break Catalonia away from Spain.

Puigdemont's supporters have said he could be sworn in to office via videoconference from Brussels and rule from abroad, a plan Spain's central government opposes.

He himself has said he would rather return to Spain as long as he is given guarantees he will not be arrested.

Spain's Constitutional Court on Saturday ruled that Puigdemont must return to the country, turn himself in and then ask a court special permission to be present in the regional parliament to receive the authority to form a new government.

The court said that its 11 magistrates had decided unanimously "to preventively suspend the investiture of Puigdemont unless he appears in the (regional) parliament in person with prior judicial authorisation".

It also warned all members of the Catalan parliament of "their responsibilities" and warned against disobeying the order to suspend any investiture.

- 'No plan B to democracy' -

Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia party insisted Sunday it is not planning to propose an alternative candidate to form a government despite the court ruling.

"There is no plan B to democracy. It is the will of the people... that Puigdemont can and should be sworn in, he has all the right to be sworn in," party spokesman Eduard Pujol told reporters in Barcelona.

But Catalonia's other main pro-secession party appeared to be wavering.

Joan Tarda, a top lawmaker with the Republican Left party, said while they prefered to see Puigdemont restored to power, their main priority should be to swear in a new pro-independence government and avoid fresh elections.

"It is essential to have a government, if president Puigdemont has to be sacrificed, we will have to sacrifice him," he said in an interview published Sunday in Catalan daily La Vanguardia.

"We can't jeopardise our great election win on December 21. Carles Puigdemont, whether or not he is president of Catalonia in the coming years... will enter into the history books."

- Arrests -

Catalan speaker Torrent has not yet reacted in public to the Constitutional Court's ruling.

Catalonia's independence declaration on October 27 was short-lived as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved to stop the crisis in a region deeply divided over secession.

Rajoy imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region, sacked its government including Puigdemont, dissolved its parliament and called snap elections.

Several days later, separatist leaders were charged for their attempt to break from Spain via a banned independence referendum, but by then Puigdemont and several of his former ministers were already in Belgium.

Deposed vice president Oriol Junqueras, however, remained in Spain and was jailed along with others pending a probe into their role in the independence drive.

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