Catalonia’s Puigdemont appeals for help to repay costs of banned referendum

By JOAN FAUS and Emma Pinedo

BARCELONA/MADRID (Reuters) – Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont asked pro-independence backers on Tuesday to donate money after Spanish authorities ordered him and 19 others to pay back 4.1 million euros ($4.55 million) of public money spent on a banned independence referendum.

The referendum, held on Oct. 1, 2017 despite being declared illegal by Spanish courts, led to a short-lived declaration of independence by leaders of the restive northeastern region, plunging Spain into its biggest political crisis in decades.

Puigdemont later fled to Belgium, while other top separatists were jailed.

“If you voted on Oct. 1, we need you,” Puigdemont said in a post on his Twitter account, with a link to a bank account.

Puigdemont, who is now a member of the European Parliament and still lives in exile in Belgium, said Spain’s top public auditors’ office had given him and other separatist politicians 15 days to refund the money before their assets could be seized.

The auditors’ office, which oversees spending by Spain’s political parties and within the public sector, confirmed the funds must be returned. The money was spent on websites, publicity and invitations to European lawmakers and international observers, among other uses, it said.

Puigdemont’s appeal for cash comes at a sensitive time, with Madrid and Barcelona planning talks on Catalonia’s future.

Earlier on Tuesday, six jailed separatist leaders were briefly released from prison under heavy police protection to testify in the Catalan parliament, as hundreds of supporters chanted “Independence” and “Freedom for political prisoners”.

One of the six, Oriol Junqueras, told an investigative committee of the Catalan parliament he was confident the region would eventually vote again on independence.

“A self-determination referendum is a normal thing. We want to exercise it again and we will exercise it again,” Junqueras, a former deputy regional leader, said in his testimony. “We are not afraid, we never were and we are even less so now.”

Junqueras said planned talks between the Socialist-led government in Madrid and the pro-independence regional government in Barcelona were a “step forward”, though he was skeptical about their chances for success.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is due in Barcelona on Feb. 6 to set the agenda for the talks.

The dialogue was a condition for Junqueras’ separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) to facilitate Sanchez’s efforts to be appointed prime minister, an arrangement denounced by opposition parties on the Spanish right.

($1 = 0.9014 euros)

(Editing by Ingrid Melander, Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)