Catalan leader to be freed in Sardinia while fighting extradition
Exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, arrested in Italy at Spain’s request over an independence referendum that Madrid ruled illegal, will be freed while he fights extradition, his lawyer said Friday.
But Puigdemont, a member of the European Parliament who fled Spain following the 2017 vote, must stay on island of Sardinia where he was arrested on Thursday, Agostinangelo Marras said.
The 58-year-old separatist leader spent the night in jail and appeared via videolink at a court hearing on Friday in the town of Sassari, where a judge was due to rule on his bail conditions.
Marras said prosecutors had not asked for him to be detained and said he “could be released from today”, although he must stay in Sardinia.
Lawyers for Puigdemont, who has been based in Brussels in recent years, insist there is no basis for his arrest and extradition, but say challenging it could take several weeks.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Friday he would respect the Italian system but added: “It’s clear that Carles Puigdemont must be brought to justice and stand trial.”
– Calls for release –
The arrest drew a sharp rebuke from the Catalan government, with regional leader Pere Aragones demanding Puigdemont’s “immediate release” and saying he would travel to Sardinia to “stand by” him.
It also comes at a sensitive time, nine days after the left-leaning Spanish government and regional Catalan authorities resumed negotiations to find a solution to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
Ahead of Friday’s hearing, supporters gathered outside the court in Sassari, with one holding up a large Catalan independence flag.
And in Catalonia’s regional capital Barcelona, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Italian consulate, some holding makeshift signs reading “Freedom” in Catalan over Puigdemont’s picture.
Others shouted “Free our president” in Italian and waved Catalan independence flags.
The October 2017 referendum was staged by Catalonia’s separatist regional government despite a ban by Madrid and the process was marred by police violence.
Several weeks later, the separatists issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering a huge political crisis with Spain during which Puigdemont and several others fled abroad.
Madrid swiftly moved to prosecute those Catalan separatists that stayed behind, handing nine of them long jail terms.
Although they were all pardoned earlier this year, Madrid still wants Puigdemont and several others to face justice over the secession bid.
In March, the European Parliament rescinded immunity for Puigdemont and two other pro-independence MEPs, a decision that was upheld in July by the EU’s General Court.
However, the European Parliament’s decision is being appealed and a final ruling by the EU court has yet to be made.
“Somebody misled the (EU) General Court to lift the precautionary measures,” Puigdemont’s Brussels-based lawyer Gonzalo Boye told AFP.
– ‘Persecution’ –
Aragones, a more moderate separatist who took over as Catalan leader earlier this year, said the only solution to the region’s political crisis was “self-determination”.
“In the face of persecution and judicial repression, our strongest condemnation. It has to stop,” he wrote on Twitter.
And Quim Torra, who had taken over after Puigdemont fled, said his predecessor’s extradition to Spain would be “catastrophic” and urged pro-independence activists to be “on high alert”.
Meanwhile, the Catalan National Assembly, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement, has called for protests over Puigdemont’s “illegal detention”.
Besides Puigdemont, former Catalan regional ministers Toni Comin and Clara Ponsati are also wanted in Spain on allegations of sedition.
The Italian government said it would not get involved in Puigdemont’s case.
“The procedure is entirely left to the judicial authorities,” a justice ministry statement said.