By JAN M. OLSEN and ARITZ PARRA
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The fugitive ex-president of Spain’s Catalonia region left his self-exile in Belgium and visited Denmark unimpeded Monday after a Spanish judge refused to ask Danish authorities to arrest him.
Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena rejected a petition from Spain’s top prosecutor to issue a European arrest warrant for Carles Puigdemont, saying the former Catalan leader was trying to “provoke his arrest overseas” with his planned trip to Copenhagen.
Puigdemont’s journey, which included attending a university debate and meeting Danish lawmakers, came nearly three months after he was removed from office and fled to Belgium. A warrant for his arrest remains open in Spain.
Spanish authorities are investigating him and other Catalan officials for possible rebellion and sedition charges related to regional parliament’s Oct. 27 declaration of independence.
Shortly after Puigdemont arrived in Denmark, Catalonia’s parliamentary speaker proposed him as candidate to form a new government, despite his status as a fugitive.
Llarena, the Spain Supreme Court judge, said he suspected Puigdemont planned the trip to Denmark with its attendant risk of arrest so he could blame Spain for missing an upcoming vote in the regional Parliament to elect a new leader.
“Facing the legal impossibility to be elected without being present at the Parliament, provoking his arrest overseas seeks to equip him with a justification that his absence is not a free decision as a fugitive, but the consequence of a situation that has been imposed on him,” Llarena wrote in his decision rejecting the prosecutor’s request to re-activate a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont.
The Catalan parliament has not set a date for the investiture vote, but the deadline is Jan. 31st.
Spanish courts initially sought Puigdemont’s extradition from Belgium but canceled that petition amid concerns that Belgium might send him back but restrict the crimes with which he could be charged.
The push for independence by the Catalan government, while Puigdemont was regional president, triggered Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades. Spain ousted Puigdemont’s Cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and called a December regional election as part of special powers invoked following the independence declaration.
He and his 13 former Cabinet members face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, which carry jail sentences of up to 30 years under Spanish law.
Despite Puigdemont’s legal situation, Catalan parliamentary speaker Roger Torrent said Monday that the former president was the only candidate with enough backing following last month’s election to attempt to form a new government.
Puigdemont faces immediate arrest if he returns to Spain and, if he remains abroad, central authorities in Madrid said they will block any attempt he might make to be Catalonia’s president.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has even threatened to maintain special constitutional powers to keep direct control of the region.
Torrent said he asked Rajoy for a meeting to talk about the “abnormal situation” in Catalonia.
But a government official close to Rajoy who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that the central government had no intention of discussing judicial affairs with the Catalan speaker.
Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis had said the issue of how to proceed with Puigdemont was for judges, and not the government, to decide.
“Mr. Puigdemont is subject to a process in Spain. Outside, for the moment, his movements are free within the European Union, but we’ll see,” Dastis said earlier on Monday in Brussels.
Puigdemont refused to comment on the judge’s decision not to seek his arrest. Speaking to a crowded auditorium at the University of Copenhagen, he said that he sought to regain his old job as Catalonia’s president because supporters of secession had won the most seats in the recent election.
“If Catalans can’t change their laws and leaders, that means there is no democracy in Catalonia,” he said, adding that Catalans “will not surrender to authoritarianism.”
He also talked about an April 25 constitutional referendum in the Faeroe Islands, a Danish territory. Together with Greenland, the Faeroes have long sought further autonomy while allowing Denmark to handle their foreign affairs and defense.
A Faeroese lawmaker invited Puigdemont to the Danish Parliament on Tuesday. Leading members of the government and opposition have declined to meet with him.
Parra and Associated Press writer Ciaran Giles reported from Madrid.