Spanish police have arrested 21 people including key supporters of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont on suspicion of using public money to finance a failed push for independence and fund Puigdemont’s self-imposed exile in Belgium.
In a series of raids carried out by hundreds of civil guard police in several parts of Catalonia, Puigdemont’s so-called chiefs of staff – most of them linked to the two major pro-independence parties – were among those arrested. Homes and businesses were also searched under what is being called Operation Volhov.
Police are also investigating links to Tsunami Democràtic,a grassroots organisation behind street violence that erupted last October after Catalan politicians received long jail sentences for their part in the illegal declaration of independence in 2017.
The operation, in which more than 30 people are implicated, was ordered by the Barcelona judge Joaquín Aguirre after investigators uncovered evidence of misuse of public funds, money laundering and perverting the course of justice.
Among other possible offences, it is alleged that over a six-year period, about €2m (£1.8m) in subsidies managed by the Barcelona provincial administration and intended for organisations involved in international cooperation was diverted to fund the independence campaign.
Funds were allegedly channelled through the pro-independence organisation CatMón, presided over by Víctor Terradellas. In 2017, Terradellas informed Puigdemont that he had met Russian officials who said the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was prepared to recognise an independent Catalonia in exchange for Catalan support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
One of those arrested, Xavier Vendrell, a member of the Catalan Republican Left party (ERC), admitted before a judge in 1992 to taking part in two terrorist attacks in 1989 and 1990 as a member of the militant Catalan group Terra Lliure (Free Land). He was allowed out on bail but was never convicted.
Puigdemont dismissed the raids as “another swipe from the oppressor” while the jailed ERC leader, Oriol Junqueras, condemned the “never-ending” repression of the independence movement.
Roger Torrent, speaker of the Catalan parliament, said “the conflict needed a political solution, amnesty and self-determination, in order to put an end to judicial and police repression”.
However, Carlos Carrizosa, the leader of the centre-right Citizens party in Catalonia, described the Catalan administration as “full of parasites who consume the resources intended for the public”.
Puigdemont fled to Brussels to evade arrest after the illegal independence declaration. Attempts to extradite him failed and he now lives in a mansion in the Belgian town of Waterloo, though he remains a force in Catalan politics. His supporters say his lifestyle and political activities are funded by wealthy acolytes, not state funds.