Arrest warrants withdrawn for Catalan separatist leaders

A Spanish judge has withdrawn international arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former cabinet who have been fighting extradition from Belgium.

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is among five former Cabinet members who have had international arrest warrants against them withdrawn. Picture: Getty Images

But a Supreme Court spokesman said the five could still be arrested if they go back to Spain because they are still being sought for possible crimes related to the independence bid in north-eastern Catalonia.

In a surprise move, Supreme Court magistrate Pablo Llarena said that individual warrants do not apply any more because the alleged crimes were a group action according to new evidence.

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He also said the probed politicians have shown their “intention to return to Spain” to run for regional elections in Catalonia.

But Mr Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer said the Catalan separatist leader was not planning to return to Spain immediately.

“For the moment he stays in Belgium,” lawyer Paul Bekaert told VTM network, adding that he assumed the extradition process in Belgium against the five Catalans would be ended now.

The five Catalans are facing rebellion, sedition and embezzlement among other charges for their roles last month in staging an illegal independence referendum that led to an independence declaration in the region’s parliament.

The crimes are punishable in Spain with decades in prison.

Spanish, European and international arrest warrants for the five who fled to Belgium were issued on November 3 after members of Mr Puigdemont’s government, who remained in Spain, were jailed on provisional charges.

The Spanish court spokesman said the judge’s decision applied to both European and international warrants, not to the domestic ones. He asked not to be named, citing internal court rules.

Two ex-cabinet members, including former Vice President Oriol Junqueras, and two separatist activists remain in custody.

Today’s decision seemed to leave up in the air the battle in Brussels over extradition for the five Catalan separatist politicians. A decision had been announced for December 14, but the Belgian prosecutor’s office said it was assessing the new situation.

The Belgian judge could have chosen to rule against the Spanish request or agreed to send the five back as requested, or reduced the number of crimes that Spain could try them for.

That possibility was mentioned by the Supreme Court judge in a nine-page document to withdraw the warrants.

Mr Puigdemont is leading his party’s campaign for the December 21 election called by Spain’s government in an attempt to find a democratic fix to the nation’s worst institutional crisis in nearly four decades.

Campaigning officially began today and early polls are predicting a close race between the parties for and against independence, foreshadowing a scenario of difficult post-electoral deals to end the deadlock.

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