Catalan leaders face 'rebellion' charge as key figure flees abroad


Barcelona (AFP)

Spain's Supreme Court said Friday 13 key Catalan separatists would be prosecuted for "rebellion" as Marta Rovira became the latest leading pro-independence figure to flee abroad to escape charges over the region's breakaway bid.

Among those charged are Catalonia's sacked president Carles Puigdemont and his designated successor, Jordi Turull.

If found guilty, they face up to 30 years in prison.

Judge Pablo Llarena accused Puigdemont -- currently in self-imposed exile in Belgium -- of organising the independence referendum in October last year despite a ban from Madrid and "grave risk of violent incidents".

Llarena said he considered the "attack on the State" of a "gravity .. without comparison in neighbouring democracies."

Turull, a former Puigdemont government spokesman, is already under investigation over Catalonia's secession drive but so far remains free under bail.

He was due to appear in court Friday along with four other leading separatists. If detained, he will not be able to attend Saturday's Catalan parliament where he is due to succeed Puigdemont, leaving the separatists still seeking a new leader.

- 'Road to exile' -

But one of the "rebels", Marta Rovira, ignored the summons and instead announced she was taking "the road to exile".

Rovira is deputy leader of the leftwing separatist ERC party, whose chief is currently in jail.

She was placed under judicial control in February, but the judge stopped short of putting her behind bars for the duration of an ongoing probe into charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

In a statement released by her party, Rovira said she felt her "freedom of expression was being censored by the courts which intimidate and shamelessly apply political criteria".

Rovira, who did not specify where she was headed, is the seventh separatist to flee abroad to escape charges.

The separatist parties won regional elections in December called by Madrid after they attempted to secede, retaining their absolute majority in parliament.

But they have still not been able to form a government and face growing legal pressures that have seen many moderate their tone.

With numerous leaders abroad or in jail, the separatists have struggled to re-organise or even remain in politics. Three more members of the parliament announced Thursday they were giving up their sears.

In a broad alliance swinging from centre-right to far left, the separatists failed to elect a new regional president on Thursday after their most radical faction refused to back Turull in a vote of confidence.

- 'Violent uprising' -

A second round parliamentary vote was due to take place Saturday.

Nine members of Puigdemont's cabinet face not only rebellion charges but also embezzlement.

Judge Llarena charged they had diverted 1.6 million euros (nearly $2 million) of public money to stage the referendum on self-determination last October 1.

His 70-page finding sets out the reasons for the rebellion charges which imply the existence of a "violent uprising", which some jurists say did not happen.

A key element, the judge said, was Puigdemont's refusal to call off the referendum despite police warning of a "grave risk of violent incidents".

Some 60 policemen were hurt trying to stop the vote, the judge noted, without mention of the attacks by police against voters waiting outside polling booths.

By encouraging people to resist the police, the separatist leaders wanted "the State to give up in the face of violent determination," from a section of the population, Llarena wrote.

"That is enough to pass off as 'violent' those who organised the most peaceful and massive demonstration in recent European history," Puigdemont said from Finland where he is travelling.

In total 25 people -- all the hard core of the separatist leadership -- are today facing charges.

They can appeal in the Supreme Court which may confirm the charges and order trials.

Catalonia remains under direct rule from Madrid, which was imposed after the October 27 independence declaration.