WATERLOO, Belgium (AP) — The leader of Catalonia's failed secession bid in 2017 says that Spain will seek "vengeance" rather than justice when 12 of his separatist allies stand trial next week accused of rebellion and other charges.
Carles Puigdemont, who will follow the trial from self-imposed exile in Belgium, accused EU countries of double standards for recognizing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as that country's interim president, while ignoring his attempt to declare independence for Catalonia.
"I was elected by a democratically impeccable parliament as president and I was sacked by a man who now only has four members of the regional parliament in Catalonia," Puigdemont told The Associated Press on Sunday, referring to former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. "This double standard is shameful for Europe."
The former Catalan regional president slipped out of Spain after the government removed him from office following the regional parliament's declaration of independence on Oct. 27, 2017. Twelve other separatists will go on trial in Spain's Supreme Court on Feb. 12 on charges including rebellion and sedition.
"We are all supporting them, helping them because they are suffering a terribly unjust and humiliating situation and being used to set an example," Puigdemont said in the interview in the Belgian town of Waterloo, south of Brussels.
The trial, he said, "will not be an act of justice but rather one of vengeance."
Spanish Supreme Court President Carlos Lesmes has dismissed such claims, insisting the trial will follow the "highest standards set by the European Union."
He recently told foreign journalists that discrediting the Spanish judiciary "is part of the defense's strategy of advancing its political interests."
The trial will be broadcast on TV from Madrid. A request by defense lawyers to have Puigdemont testify via video conference was refused.
Instead, he will watch the proceedings from his home in Waterloo, a two-story brick house bordered by trimmed hedges. The lease is paid for by private donations, according to Puigdemont. A plaque on the front door reads "The House of the Republic." Inside, the walls are covered with artwork exalting Catalonia's struggle for independence and in a corner of the living room stands an empty ballot box used in the referendum.
Puigdemont said that what he expects will be a guilty verdict for his fellow separatists, including members of his defunct Cabinet, would only provide momentum to the separatist movement, which he predicted would gain the support of a clear majority of Catalans.
"That moment will arrive and when it does we will have all the legitimacy to take the decisions that we have already decided in parliament and have ratified in a plebiscite," he said, adding that the declaration of independence was still valid.
"So we are on this path and don't let anyone forget it because despite the inconveniences, it is valid and it can be activated when we have the conviction and the certainty that it should be," he said.
The "yes" vote won in a landslide in the October 2017 referendum, during which hundreds of people were injured in a police crackdown. But those in favor of remaining with Spain largely stayed home, and Spain's central government declared the vote illegal and unconstitutional.
Subsequent regional elections indicated that Catalonia is evenly split between those in favor and those against independence.
Traveling around Europe to drum up support for his cause, Puigdemont was arrested in Germany on a European warrant issued by Spain last March. A German court, however, ruled it would only extradite him on charges of misuse of public funds to hold the referendum, not the more serious charge of rebellion. That led a Spanish judge to withdraw the arrest order for Puigdemont in July, along with five other separatists who fled Spain.
Puigdemont said he wouldn't be surprised if Spain reactivated the European arrest warrant after the trial concludes, saying "we take it for granted" and are prepared to fight it. The alternative, however, is to remain far from his wife and two young daughters, who visit him but continue to live in northeastern Spain.
"To let me rot in exile so that nobody listens to me, that too is a kind of punishment," he said. "(But) the best case scenario is that they don't extradite me. I am going to spend many years here."
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain.