Thursday 19 September 2019

Ousted Catalan leader is freed after surrendering in Brussels

People in Pamplona, northern Spain, take shelter under umbrellas during a protest against Madrid’s power grab. Photo: AP
People in Pamplona, northern Spain, take shelter under umbrellas during a protest against Madrid’s power grab. Photo: AP

James Badcock in Madrid

A Belgian judge has granted conditional release to sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his ministers after they voluntarily surrended to police in Brussels yesterday.

The group is scheduled to appear at court within 15 days.

Mr Puigdemont, who turned himself in to Belgian police after Spain issued a European arrest warrant for rebellion and misuse of public funds, is now barred from leaving Belgium without a judge's consent.

The separatist leader, removed from office by the Spanish government, has declared that he will fight extradition to Spain, where he faces a possible criminal trial and imprisonment of up to 30 years.

The Brussels prosecutor's office announced yesterday morning that Mr Puigdemont had turned himself in, along with four former ministers from his ousted Catalan administration, who travelled to Belgium last week with their leader to avoid a Spanish court summons.

The Catalan administration last month held a referendum deemed unlawful by Madrid and declared the region independent of Spain. The Madrid High Court judge investigating all 14 members of the deposed Catalan administration remanded eight former ministers in custody without bail and issued European arrest warrants for the five fugitives in Brussels, who are accused of rebellion and sedition, among other offences.

"They went to the office of the federal judicial police and were deprived of their liberty this morning at 9.17am," said Gilles Dejemeppe, a Brussels prosecutor's office spokesman.

Mr Puigdemont has insisted that he does not fear justice, but has lashed out against what he calls Spain's "politicised judiciary". "We are prepared to fully co-operate with Belgian justice following the European arrest warrant issued by Spain," Mr Puigdemont posted on his Twitter feed on Saturday.

"There is no fear of justice, only of injustice," said Gonzalo Boye, the lawyer who is defending Meritxell Serret and Toni Comin, two of Mr Puigdemont's former regional ministers.

The Catalan nationalists have strong support from Flemish political parties in Belgium. The fleeing of Mr Puigdemont and his colleagues to Brussels had been preceded by the country's immigration minister, Theo Francken, saying they would be able to seek asylum.

Yesterday, the Belgian vice-premier and interior minister said that Madrid had overreacted and all efforts must be made to ensure that Mr Puigdemont and his colleagues get a fair trial if he is returned to Spain. Jan Jambon, who criticised the "silence" of the European Union on the issue, said: "I am just questioning how a European Union member state can go this far and I am asking myself whether Europe is to have an opinion on this."

Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, suggested the Spanish judiciary releases the former Catalan officials to prevent the legitimacy of next month's elections being undermined.

Irish Independent

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