Sunday 23 September 2018

Ball in Puigdemont's court as arrest warrant is withdrawn

Former Catalan justice minister Carles Mundo after his release from jail. Photo: Reuters
Former Catalan justice minister Carles Mundo after his release from jail. Photo: Reuters

Hannah Strange

Spain's Supreme Court yesterday withdrew the European Arrest Warrants issued for former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four members of his cabinet, in a surprise move that throws down the gauntlet to the independence leader ahead of key elections.

A day after the five Catalan politicians appeared in court in Belgium, where they fled to avoid arrest on charges of sedition and rebellion over the illegal October 1 referendum and the October 27 declaration of independence, the Supreme Court said it was tearing up the requests for their extradition.

It said the Belgian judiciary might restrict the charges on which the five could be extradited, limiting prospects for their prosecution in Spain. A Belgian judge had been scheduled to rule on the requests on December 14 - a week before the Catalan elections in which Mr Puigdemont is again standing.

Spanish judge Pablo Llarena - who on Monday granted bail to six other Catalan independence figures but kept four in prison - also cited the fugitive politicians' intention to return for the vote.

The court document said "the individuals under investigation seem to have shown their intention to return to Spain, with the aim of taking possession and exercise elected roles for which elections have been called recently".

With the domestic arrest warrant still in place, the move leaves Mr Puigdemont with two choices - return to Catalonia for the December 21 vote and be arrested, or remain at liberty but in self-imposed exile.

He has insisted he will take office again as president if re-elected and challenged Spanish authorities to arrest him.

Yesterday, an emotional Mr Puigdemont appeared by video link at a press conference with two of the former cabinet members released on bail.

"We are by your side. We hope to return to normality," he told the two men, without commenting on his plans in the wake of the ruling.

The bail decision was angrily denounced by pro-independence parties, who accused Spain of violating human rights and keeping the "political prisoners" in jail to hamper their election prospects.

Mr Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert told local newspaper 'L'Echo': "Mr Puigdemont won't leave Belgium after the withdrawal of the European Arrest Warrant."

Irish Independent

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