Political tension in Belgium mounts as Puigdemont is released

When deposed separatist leader Carles Puigdemont sent this tweet, shortly after he was released on bail earlier this week, his words added to the political turmoil which has gripped Belgian politics. In translation, the tweet says “Free and without bail. Our thoughts are with the comrades unjustly jailed by a state that strays far from democratic practices.” 

Puigdemont’s presence in Belgium has caused problems for the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel, who rules in a coalition with Flemish separatists, who are sympathetic to the cause of Catalonian independence.

On Sunday, the Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon, of the New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA), expressed sympathy for Catalonia’s pro-independence politicians. In an interview on Belgian television channel VTM, he said: “… what did they do wrong? They simply applied their voters’ mandate.”

On October 29, the secretary of State for Asylum, Migration and Administrative Simplification, Theo Francken, said that “Catalans who feel politically threatened can apply for asylum in Belgium. This includes the minister-president Puigdemont.”

The position of the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs and European affairs, Didier Reynders, is rather different. On Monday, he was quoted by Belgian daily Le Soir as saying that “certain politicians “[thought] they [could] have an influence” on events in Spain. Reynders says he has been in contact with Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis “since the referendum” in Catalonia.

On Monday, Reynders urged his colleagues to keep out of the Catalan crisis. This followed calls from some senior figures in Belgian politics for Michel to do more to keep Puigdemont and his former ministers out of jail.

The prosecutor’s spokeperson, Ine Van Wymersch, defended the independence of the judiciary in releasing Puigdemont: “We can confirm again that yesterday there was not one single political contact and not one single contact between the political authorities and the judicial authorities. The judge is independent and took his decision in all independence, and there was no political influence.”

So, what now? According to AFP, Puigdemont’s case will be heard by a judge on November 17 who will then decide on his possible extradition to Spain. If Puigdemont loses, he will have the right to appeal and be heard again within 15 days.

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