BRUSSELS — Facing possible criminal charges at home that could put him behind bars for decades, ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont took his bid for independence from Spain to the heart of Europe on Tuesday, attempting to portray his secessionist movement as persecuted underdogs who deserve international backing in their fight against Madrid.
A Spanish judge, meanwhile, ordered Puigdemont and the rest of his ousted Cabinet to appear for questioning later this week as part of a rebellion probe. Whether they appear or not, the judge is likely to decide as soon as Friday on whether to issue arrest warrants.
In a high-profile appearance before international media in the Belgian capital, Puigdemont kept up his defiant tone against the Spanish government's relentless efforts to thwart his secession ambitions. His unannounced trip underscored that his path to success is being blocked by the law in Spain, and he conceded ground to the Spanish government by agreeing to take part in an early regional election called for Dec. 21.
Even as Puigdemont's quest to establish a new Western European country appeared increasingly quixotic, his grass roots supporters showed no signs of wavering — a depth of passion that illustrates why the wrangling over Catalonia has been going on for so long and why it is unlikely to end soon.
Puigdemont said he and the five ousted government colleagues who accompanied him to Brussels were seeking "freedom and safety" from the Spanish authorities.
If Spain "can guarantee to all of us, and to me in particular, a just, independent (legal) process, with separation of powers that we have in the majority of European nations — if they guarantee that, we would return immediately," Puigdemont told a packed news conference at the Brussels Press Club, which is right next to the European Union's headquarters.
"But we have to continue to work, and that is why we decided Friday night on this strategy," he said.
The Spanish government in Madrid has cracked down hard on Puigdemont's attempt to take Catalonia, a wealthy region of some 7.5 million people that accounts for about one-fifth of the national GDP, out of Spain.
It accused Puigdemont of flouting the constitution by holding an Oct. 1 independence referendum and deployed police to stop the vote after the Constitutional Court said it could not go ahead. Then, when the Catalan parliament approved a motion declaring independence last week in defiance of the Spanish Constitution, which says Spain is "indivisible," the national government stripped Catalonia of its powers of self-rule.
Spain's chief prosecutor is seeking charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against Puigdemont, and his No. 2, Oriol Junqueras, before Spain's National Court, which on Tuesday ordered the two men and the rest of the ousted Cabinet to appear for questioning on Thursday.
National Court Judge Carmen Lamela said the 14 were being investigated for allegedly "weaving a strategy" that led to the Oct. 27 unilateral declaration of independence in the regional parliament.
She also ordered them to pay a $7.2 million (6.2 million euro) deposit by Friday to cover possible liability costs associated with the banned Oct. 1 referendum, or risk seizure of their assets.
It was not immediately clear whether Puigdemont planned to return for questioning, but if appeals don't succeed the judge could issue arrest warrants for him and the other Cabinet members as soon as Friday.
Separately, the prosecutor is seeking similar charges before the higher Supreme Court for six ex-members of the governing body of the now-dissolved Catalan parliament because they enjoy a degree of immunity and can only be tried by this court. The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to investigate the allegations against the six.
As Puigdemont walked into the Brussels Press Club, a group of demonstrators held up Spanish national flags and pro-unity signs, including ones that that said "Rule of Law" and "Not in my Name. Long live Spain."
Puigdemont, in a tweet, asked Catalans to be patient, "because the road will be long."
While in the rest of Spain there is little sympathy for the region's independence drive, a new opinion poll indicated growing support for secession among Catalans.
Pro-secession sentiment has increased in Catalonia over the tumultuous past month, an opinion poll published Tuesday by Catalonia's official public opinion center indicated. It said the percentage of Catalans who want the region to become an independent state has risen to 48.7 percent from 41.1 percent in June, while the proportion against independence has fallen to 43.6 percent from 49.4 percent. The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.69 percentage points, questioned 1,500 people from Oct. 16-29.
In the coastal Catalan town of Vilanova i La Geltru, south of Barcelona, separatists were as determined as ever, despite the legal setbacks.
"I want to say that we are with him. And the sad thing is that in order to be safe, he had to go to Brussels," Jordi Trillas, a cafe owner, said of Puigdemont.
Another resident, Sergio Cabrera, also said he continued to support the ousted Catalan leader. "He followed his line," Cabrera said. "The issue is to see whether they hear him or not."
Puigdemont's Brussels trip raised some eyebrows among his political allies, who said they were kept in the dark about it. Pro-independence parties in Catalonia have long been riven by squabbling over how best to achieve their goal.Comment on this story
The ousted regional minister for business, Santi Vila, a moderate in Puigdemont's separatist Democratic Party of Catalonia, said nobody in the party leadership knew about the Brussels plan.
"Separatism is legitimate, but it must be defended within the law," Vila told La Sexta television. "We have to recover our serenity. We wanted to take Catalonia to the gates of independence, but we have returned it to a period before it had any self-governance."
Parra reported from Barcelona. Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Elena Becatoros in Vilanova i La Geltru, Joseph Wilson in Barcelona and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.