Standing inside the grand hall of the Palau de la Generalitat, the Catalan regional government’s headquarters in the Spanish city of Barcelona, in early 2016, a 54-year-old bespectacled former journalist addressed a crowd of politicians and citizens.
Carles Puigdemont had just been inaugurated the Catalan president. Hanging around his neck was the gold medal of the government to symbolise his role as the 130th leader of the region.
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With pro-independence flags fluttering inside and outside the hall, he declared, “We have come from far, but we are not tired. We are full of hope.”
“Impossible is just an opinion.”
As two senior Spanish government officials from Madrid looked on, Puigdemont was defiant, vowing to consolidate support among the Catalans in his uphill effort to establish an independent republic.
“We are pretty confident about the future of Catalonia within the European Union. It is a yes-yes situation,” he said in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera’s John Hendren recently.
On October 1, 2017, millions of Catalans voted in a referendum, with the large majority of voters supporting independence. That same day, violence unfolded as the government in Madrid tried to stop the vote from happening.
In the weeks following the referendum, Puigdemont inched closer to his goal for his homeland, becoming the unlikely leader of a movement that started in a tiny town in the Catalan province of Girona.
Almost four weeks after the referendum, Catalonia officially declared independence, with the Spanish government in Madrid immediately triggering Article 155, which allows the national government to take direct control of Catalonia.
A day later, the Spanish government dismissed Puigdemont and his cabinet, calling for new regional elections on December 21.
Puigdemont and a handful of other Catalan ministers then left Barcelona for Belgium, where they remain.
Spain has issued an international arrest warrant for the Catalan leaders.
Puigdemont was the driving force behind Catalonia declaring independence on October 27. But who is the now sacked Catalan leader?
He was born on December 29, 1962, in the Catalan region. At 16, he started working as a reporter for the local newspaper Diari de Girona.
At the University of Girona, Puigdemont studied Catalan philosophy. But he dropped out of university to become a full-time journalist.
After working for years for the now-defunct newspaper El Punt, he became its editor-in-chief in 1988. He wrote for the journal, Presencia and also founded the English-language magazine, Catalonia Today.
In 2006, Puigdemont left journalism to join a Catalan electoral alliance, which later turned into a pro-independence movement. Because of his background in communication, he also helped establish the Catalan News Agency, a “digital native” mouthpiece for the Catalan movement.
In 2011, he was elected mayor of Girona, the capital of the province of the same name. He was the first politician in 32 years to break the Socialist Party of Catalonia’s dominance in the city.
Puigdemont further burnished his political credentials among Catalans by becoming chairman of the Association of Municipalities for Independence and being elected a member of the regional parliament.
On January 10, 2016, he was elected president of Catalonia. He is the first Catalan president to not declare an oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the current king, Felipe VI.
Amid criticism from the central government in Madrid for his role in the referendum, Puigdemont managed to push for the vote in the Catalan parliament. The voting was declared unconstitutional by the country’s courts.
However, Puigdemont and his supporters were defiant as he pushed for the region’s second referendum on independence in three years. Of those that cast their ballots, a majority voted in favour of independence, leading to a political crisis in Spain.
On October 27, Catalonia’s future once again caused turmoil after the region declared independence from Spain.
Several hours after the declaration, Puigdemont was fired, and his regional government dissolved. The future of Puigdemont and the Catalan independence project is now uncertain.
The day after the declaration, the Spanish prime minister dissolved the Catalan Parliament and called for new regional elections on 21 December 2017.
On 30 October Puigdemont and other members of the Catalan government were charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, charges that carry a maximum sentence of 30 years.
On the same day, Puigdemont and five other Catalan ministers fled to Belgium, having left Catalonia right after the charges were laid.
Puigdemont claimed he had gone to “the capital of Europe” to speak from a position of “freedom and safety”. He said that he wouldn’t return to Spain unless he was guaranteed a fair trial.
On 7 December 2017, about 45,000 Catalan protesters descended on Brussels in support of the exiled president. The protests took place outside EU institutions aiming to put pressure on EU institutions to support the region’s cause.
While remaining in self-exile, Puigdemont contested the regional elections on 21 December and was re-elected to Parliament. In the election, Catalan secessionists retained a slim majority in the Catalan Parliament.
After the election, Puigdemont called for new unconditional talks with the Spanish government and proposed to meet Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy outside Spain, but the latter rejected the offer.
On 25 March 2018, while travelling from Finland to Brussels by car, Puigdemont was detained by German police on the border with Denmark.
The German officers were acting on a European arrest warrant that had been issued against him by the Spanish Supreme Court.