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Belgium frees five Catalan leaders under conditions

Published: November 06, 2017 10:37:21 | Updated: November 09, 2017 10:09:51


Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont signs a declaration of independence at the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona, Spain (Reuters photo)

Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four close separatist allies regained their freedom at the end of a tumultuous Sunday that started when they surrendered in Brussels to face possible extradition to Spain for allegedly plotting a rebellion.

But a Brussels investigative judge quickly ruled there was no reason to put the five politicians behind bars and released them on condition they stay in Belgium and attend their court sessions within two weeks, reports AP.

Hours after the former Catalan regional president and four ex-ministers turned themselves in to Belgian authorities, Puigdemont’s party put him forward as its leader for an upcoming regional election called by the Spanish government — meaning he could end up vocally heading a campaign from Brussels while he fights a forced return to Spain.

The decision was rife with implications for Spain and political consequences for Catalonia, the restive Spanish region fighting Madrid for independence.

The five Catalan politicians who fled to Belgium after Spanish authorities removed them from office Oct 28 were taken into custody Sunday on European arrest warrants issued after they failed to show up in Madrid last week for questioning.

In Belgium, even the prosecutor didn’t think it was necessary to detain the five after Puigdemont made it amply clear he would fully cooperate with Belgian authorities.

“The request made this afternoon by the Brussels’ Prosecutor’s Office for the provisional release of all persons sought has been granted by the investigative judge,” a statement from the prosecutor’s office said.

The office said the whole extradition process could take more than 60 days, well past the Dec 21 date set for the regional election in Catalonia.

Puigdemont and the four ex-ministers left for Belgium last week as the Spanish government, seeking to quash Catalan separatists’ escalating steps to secede, applied constitutional authority to take over running the region.

The officials said they wanted to make their voices heard in the heart of the European Union and have refused to return to Spain, maintaining they could not get fair trials there.

Nine other deposed Catalan Cabinet members heeded a Spanish judge’s summons for questioning in Madrid on Thursday. After questioning them, the judge ordered eight of them to jail without bail while her investigation continues. The ninth spent a night behind bars before posting bail and being released.

Whether in Brussels or Barcelona, Puigdemont is at the heart of political jockeying for position to start a campaign that promises to be as bitter as it is decisive to Spain’s worst institutional crisis in nearly four decades.

While parties opposed to breaking away from Spain try to rally support to win back control of Catalonia’s regional parliament, pro-secession parties are debating whether or not to form one grand coalition for the upcoming ballot.

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