Spain seeks rebellion charges against fired Catalan leaders

A Catalan police officer stands guard at the entrance of the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain, Monday Oct. 30, 2017. Catalonia's civil servants face their first full work week since Spain's central government overturned an independence declaration by firing the region's elected leaders. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain -- Spain moved Monday to put Catalonia's secessionist leaders on trial for alleged crimes that carry maximum sentences of decades in prison, and some of the ousted government figures went to the Belgian capital, where an official said they might be able to request asylum.

As Catalonia spent its first working day under the direct rule of Madrid, after its regional parliament's unsuccessful efforts to create a new country, Spain was venturing into new political terrain amid an unprecedented crisis.

An early regional election Dec. 21 is on the horizon, when separatists and unionists will present candidates, but before that, the country likely will endure weeks of political uncertainty.

Cranking up the tension, Spain's state prosecutor said he would seek rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges against members of the region's secessionist government.

Chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said he would ask judges for preventive measures against the politicians and the governing body of the Catalan parliament that allowed a vote to declare independence Friday. Maza didn't specify whether those measures would include their arrest and detention before trial.

The rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges carry maximum sentences of 30, 15 and six years in prison, respectively.

Those facing charges include ousted regional leader Carles Puigdemont, and his No. 2, Oriol Junqueras, as well as Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell -- high-profile figures in the region of 7.5 million people and its capital, Barcelona.

Puigdemont's whereabouts was a mystery early Monday. The uncertainty continued the game of political cat-and-mouse with which the Catalan leader has tormented the national government since he announced almost two months ago Catalonia would hold an independence referendum Oct. 1 -- a ballot the government rejected as illegal.

It later emerged Puigdemont had traveled to Brussels, a trip confirmed by Spanish officials and a Catalan member of the European Parliament, though Puigdemont was not seen in public. Belgium allows asylum requests by citizens of other European Union nations, and in the past, some Basque separatists were not extradited to Spain while they sought asylum, causing years of friction.

Still, it would be exceptional for Belgium to grant asylum to another EU citizen based on arguments that repression would endanger the full exercise of one's rights.

By targeting Puigdemont and some of his entourage, Spanish authorities apparently hoped to send a message attempts to break up Spain will not be tolerated. The country has 17 autonomous regions, including Catalonia, but the constitution states Spain is "indivisible."