BARCELONA — Spanish authorities moved aggressively Monday to quash Catalonia's bid for independence, as separatist leaders appeared to retreat just days after declaring their region a free nation.
With Catalonia’s ousted president fleeing the country, Spain’s top law enforcement official pressing charges of rebellion and sedition, and local government employees bowing to direct rule by Madrid, the region showed signs of acquiescence, not autonomy.
The stark turnabout raised questions about a lack of preparation by Catalan leaders before the regional Parliament voted to break from Madrid on Friday. Many ordinary Catalans who support independence said they were crestfallen that the former regional president, Carles Puigdemont, did not push more forcefully against Spanish authorities.
Instead, Catalan politicians largely appear to be accepting a Madrid plan to hold new regional elections on Dec. 21.
As Spanish authorities announced the criminal charges, they said the former Catalan officials had abused their power by stoking the secessionist campaign.
“With their decisions and actions over these last two years, they have provoked an institutional crisis culminating with the unilateral declaration of independence, realized with total disregard for our constitution,” said Spanish Attorney General José Manuel Maza.
With rebellion carrying a maximum 30-year prison sentence, Puigdemont appeared to surface Monday in Belgium, a country where asylum claims are in the hands of Flemish nationalist politicians who harbor hopes of establishing their own independent nation. A Belgian lawyer who previously defended members of the Basque militant group ETA, Paul Bekaert, told Spanish news outlets that Puigdemont was in Belgium and had hired him as his lawyer. Catalan outlets said Puigdemont planned to speak publicly on Tuesday.
The criminal charges were the latest step by Spanish officials seeking to derail Catalonia's drive for independence, which was set in motion this month with a referendum in which voters backed a break from Spain.
In a stunning cascade of events last week, Catalonia’s regional Parliament formally declared independence, and Spanish authorities countered by stripping Catalan leaders of their powers.
The officials charged were not immediately arrested on Monday. They were asked to present themselves at a Madrid court in the coming days. It was unclear whether they would be able to take part in the December elections.
Puigdemont’s Catalan lawyer said Monday that the charges were “inappropriate.”
The charge of rebellion “has the same gravity as terrorism,” Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas told RAC1 radio. The lawyer said that such a crime “requires violence as an essential element, and there wasn’t any.”
Despite the legal efforts against them Monday, some defiant officials in Catalonia showed up for work. At least one minister of the now-ousted regional government was allowed briefly to enter his offices.
"Continuing with planned agenda," tweeted Josep Rull, who until Friday was the Catalan minister of land and sustainability. He published a photograph of himself at his computer in his office, but left about an hour later without appearing to have tried to exercise his contested power.
Employees at his ministry said work continued as normal, even if they were not sure whether they were working for the independent nation of Catalonia or as an arm of the government in Madrid.
“We’re waiting to know what’s going to happen,” said Elisabet Masana, 50, a draftsman at the ministry. She said she did not feel as though she was living in an independent Catalonia.
Still, she said, “I have faith in the project and in my country,” meaning Catalonia.
National leaders attacked Puigdemont for his apparent travel out of the country.
The move is a sign of "absolute desperation," said Fernando Martínez Maíllo, a top official
of Spain's ruling center-right Popular Party.
The top Belgian official in charge of asylum, Theo Francken, said Sunday that it would be “not unrealistic” for Catalans to apply for asylum.
A spokeswoman clarified Monday that Francken was simply saying that Belgium offers other E.U. citizens the possibility of applying for asylum. She said there had been no contact between Francken and the Catalan officials.
Francken’s Flemish nationalist party, a member of Belgium’s ruling coalition, is friendlier to separatist movements than most others in Europe.
In a sign of disarray among
the secessionist leaders, two of the three main pro-independence parties said they would probably run candidates in the regional elections in December. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called those elections after dismissing the Catalan government, so accepting their legitimacy would tacitly endorse Madrid's rule.
“We are going to find a way to participate in elections,” said Sergi Sabrià, a spokesman for the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana party.
On the streets of Barcelona
on Monday, police and other authorities appeared to be operating normally. A new Madrid-
appointed security official took over Catalonia's regional police agency, Mossos, whose previous director was seen by national leaders as too sympathetic to the separatist cause. Ordinary residents, meanwhile, said they did not feel like they were living in a new independent republic.
“We don’t know where we are. We’re confused,” said Oriol Garcia, 41, who works in construction. He said that he supported independence but that he felt no more free on Monday than he did before the split. “We haven’t moved forward at all,” he said.
Catalonia is deeply divided on the issue of secession. In the Oct. 1 referendum, more than 90 percent of participants favored leaving Spain, but only about 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. National leaders had urged pro-
Madrid residents to shun the referendum. And on Sunday, a massive pro-unity rally of an estimated 300,000 people flooded Barcelona's leafy streets.
Even so, many secession advocates said they were not giving up. At the Catalan Ministry of Land and Sustainability, where Rull briefly showed up for work Monday morning, one employee said the pro-independence minister was still her boss despite Madrid’s decision to remove him.
“Rull is still our minister until he says otherwise,” said Cristina Jimenez, 47, an IT worker at the ministry.
Braden Phillips contributed to this report.