Catalan separatists march in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Nearly 50,000 people marched through Brussels’ European quarter on Thursday in support of Catalan independence and the region’s ousted president, who has avoided arrest in Spain by taking refuge in Belgium.

Before Carles Puigdemont addressed the crowd, many draped in Catalan flags, police estimated its size at 45,000. There were chants of “Puigdemont, President” from a generally good-natured throng, many of whom had traveled from Spain.

Some carried placards criticizing the European Union for not pressuring Madrid. One sign showed the face of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the question: “Democracy? Some defend it when it suits them. Shame on them.”

Puigdemont, who like many in the crowd wore yellow in support of jailed separatist leaders, addressed the crowd in Catalan before switching to French to direct a message to Juncker.

“Is there any place in the world that holds demonstrations like this to support criminals?” he said.

“So maybe we are not criminals. Maybe we are democrats.”

Spain’s Supreme Court on Tuesday withdrew an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont in order to bring his case back solely under Spanish jurisdiction, leaving him without an international legal stage to pursue his independence campaign.

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Puigdemont and four of his cabinet members fled to Belgium when Madrid imposed direct rule on Catalonia and sacked his government after an Oct. 27 declaration of independence by his local government.

He is likely to be detained if he returns to Spain, pending investigation on charges of sedition, rebellion, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust.

Puigdemont said on Wednesday he would remain in Belgium for the time being.

“Brussels is a kind of a loudspeaker for us,” said Gloria Cot, a clerk from Barcelona at Thursday’s march who had just arrived by coach.

“It is a loudspeaker so that people can know that we really don’t have a 100 percent democracy in Spain and that Catalonia has always been subjected to problems with Spain.”

Juncker’s deputy Frans Timmermans said he welcomed the “very positive atmosphere” of the demonstration, which took place as campaigning gets under way for a Catalan election on Dec. 21.

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Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hopes pro-independence parties will lose their majority in the Catalan parliament in the election and end the deadlock created by his government’s refusal to recognize a banned independence vote Puigdemont held in September.

Polls have separatists and unionist parties in a tie.

Timmermans said there was no change to Commission policy that the dispute with Catalan authorities remains an internal one in which the EU has no need to intervene because Spain’s democratic constitution is functioning in line with EU values.

He accused Puigdemont and his allies of undermining the rule of law by choosing to ignore a Spanish constitutional ban on secession rather than trying to change the constitution.

“If you do not agree with the law, you can organize yourselves to change the law or the constitution,” he said. “What is not permissible under the rule of law is to just ignore the law.”

Additional reporting and writing by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels and Sam Edwards in Barcelona; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Toby Chopra