Location Spain Spain

Carles Puigdemont bailed pending Brussels ruling

A Belgian judge has released the ousted Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, and four of his ministers on bail after a hearing lasting more than 10 hours.

Puigdemont, who faces charges of misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust relating to the secessionist campaign, turned himself in to Belgian police earlier on Sunday.

The judge decided to grant them conditional release late in the evening pending a ruling by a court within the next 15 days whether to execute the European arrest warrant issued by Spain. The five have been told they must not leave the country and stay in a fixed address.

“The request made 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 federal prosecutor’s office said.

On Friday, the Spanish government had issued European arrest warrants against Puigdemont, Antoni Comín, Clara Ponsatí, Meritxell Serret and Lluís Puig for trying to “illegally change the organisation of the state through a secessionist process that ignores the constitution”.

The formal charges, punishable by 30 years in prison, are rebellion, sedition, embezzlement of public funds and disobedience to authority, for their role in organising the referendum on Catalan independence on 1 October.

The secessionist politicians fled to Belgium on Monday after the Spanish authorities removed Puigdemont and his cabinet from office for pushing ahead with a declaration of independence following an illegal referendum.

From his self-imposed exile, Puigdemont claimed he would not receive a fair trial in Spain but promised to cooperate with the Belgian justice system.

The Belgian secretary of state for migration, Theo Francken, a Flemish nationalist, suggested shortly before their arrival that it was realistic to think that Belgium could offer the Catalan leadership political asylum.

The five presented themselves to the judicial police in Brussels at 9.17am on Sunday.

Gilles Dejemeppe, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor, said the Belgian authorities had been in contact with the Catalan separatists before they gave themselves up.

The investigating judge’s options on Sunday, he said, had ranged from “refusal to execute the European arrest, arresting the people involved, releasing them on conditions or under bail”.

Only the five, their lawyer and an interpreter were present at Sunday’s hearing. It is understood they chose to have the proceedings heard in Dutch.

The investigating judge has now sent a file on the case to the pretrial chamber of the court of first instance.

The court must decide within 15 days whether the European arrest warrant issued by the Spanish government shall be executed, after which there are series of avenues for appeal for the five politicians to take.

From arrest to extradition, the entire process could take up to three months to complete, including time for likely appeals.

Such a delay would give Puigdemont the opportunity to participate in the snap regional election called by Spain’s government for Catalonia on 21 December.

A senior official of Puigdemont’s party, the centre-right Democratic party of Catalonia, said on Sunday this was the party’s intention.

A spokesman for the Spanish government, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, has said that any politician can run in the election unless he or she has been convicted of a crime.

Pro-union parties are seeking to rally support to win back control of the regional parliament in Barcelona, while pro-secession parties are debating whether or not to form one grand coalition for the upcoming ballot. The parties have until Tuesday to register as coalitions or they must run separately.

Catalonia’s former regional president Artur Mas told Catalan public television on Sunday that he backed a fusion of parties for the December vote.

He said the main goals must be to recover the self-rule of the region and the release of the jailed separatists rather than pursue independence.

Mas said: “Under these exceptional circumstances that our country is going through, don’t we have to substitute the normal and logical competition for the cooperation we all need? If we add the issue of independence, we won’t get as many people to support us.”

An opinion poll published by Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper on Sunday forecasts a tight electoral race between the parties for and against Catalonia severing its ties with the rest of Spain.

The poll predicts that pro-secession parties would win 66-69 seats. They won 72 two years ago. Sixty-eight seats are needed for a majority.

In a sign of the growing headache the crisis is causing the Belgian coalition government, the country’s deputy prime minister, Jan Jambon, from the Flemish nationalist party, questioned Spain’s handling of the crisis in Catalonia and suggested the EU should intervene.

“When the police hit people, we can still ask questions,” he said. “When the Spanish state has locked two opinion leaders, I have questions. And now the Spanish government will act in the place of a democratically elected government?

“Members of a government are put in prison. What have they done wrong? Simply apply the mandate they received from their constituents.”

Spanish prosecutors are investigating 20 regional politicians for rebellion and other crimes that could be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

On Thursday, nine of Puigdemont’s sacked cabinet were ordered by Spain’s high court to be held on remand pending an investigation and potential trial. One member of the dismissed cabinet, Santi Vila, was freed after paying bail of €50,000 on Friday.

by Daniel Boffey

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