Catalan separatist leader freed from Sardinian jail ahead of extradition case

Carles Puigdemont is wanted in Spain for sedition for leading a secession bid for the Catalonia region.

Carles Puigdemont
Carles Puigdemont

Catalan separatist leader Carle Puigdemont has left a jail in Sardinia after a judge ruled he could go free pending an October 4 hearing on his extradition to Spain, where he is wanted for sedition.

Puigdemont, the former president of Spain’s Catalonia region and a member of the European Parliament, left the jail in Sassari a day after he had been detained by police.

He had been invited to attend a Catalan cultural event and a meeting of Sardinian independence sympathisers on the Mediterranean island.

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Demonstrators hold Sardinian and Catalonian flags in Sassari (Gloria Calvi/AP)

Hours before his release on Friday, Judge Plinia Clara Azzena ruled that Puigdemont was free to travel without restrictions.

The judge told the Associated Press that while she found his arrest to be valid, based on the documentation she examined, “we didn’t restrict him in any way. He can travel” if he wants.

Judge Azzena and two other judges will hold an October 4 hearing to rule on extradition.

Puigdemont’s Italian lawyer, Agostinangelo Marras, said the three-judge panel will take up the extradition request and decide whether it has merits. He said the process is expected to take “a few weeks”.

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Italian lawyer Agostinangelo Marras (Gloria Calvi/AP)

Puigdemont was taken into custody on Thursday night when he arrived at the airport in Alghero, Sardinia.

Sardinia has strong Catalan cultural roots and its own independence movement. Alghero, a city on the island’s north-west coast, is hosting the traditional Catalan folklore festival that Puigdemont had been to attend.

Demonstrators outside the courthouse in Sassari held signs in a Sardinian dialect proclaiming ”Democracy, the Sardinian nation supports the Catalan nation”, and held the flags of Sardinia and Catalonia.

Although Puigdemont holds a seat in the European Parliament, the legislature stripped him of parliamentary immunity.

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Carles Puigdemont at the European Parliament in Brussels (Francisco Seco/AP)

His detention caused political commotion in Spain, where Catalan independence has for decades been a deeply divisive issue. Separatists demanded his release and scheduled street protests, while right-of-centre parties said he should face justice.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said during an official visit to the Canary Islands on Friday that he has “respect for all legal procedures opened in Spain, in Europe and, in this case, in Italy”.

Mr Sanchez, who recently opened direct talks with Catalan regional leaders, said: “Dialogue is the only way to bring together Catalans who have distinct opinions and to bring together Catalans with the rest of Spain.”

Just under half of Catalans want to break away from Spain, opinion polls indicate, but most Spaniards do not want Catalonia to be granted independence.

Pedro Sanchez
Pedro Sanchez (Eduardo Munoz/AP)

At the heart of the immediate legal matter was whether the warrant issued by Spain seeking Puigdemont’s arrest is valid. Gonzalo Boye, his lawyer, has insisted the warrant issued in 2019 has been suspended.

The Spanish Supreme Court judge handling the case, Pablo Llarena, sent a letter to the European Union’s Agency for Criminal Justice Co-operation stating that the warrant is “in force and pending the capture of those accused of rebellion”.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Italian Justice Ministry to approve or deny extradition.

It is not the first time Spanish courts have tried to detain Puigdemont abroad. After a Belgian court declined to send him back in 2017, the following year he was arrested in Germany but a court there also refused to extradite him.

Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after holding an independence referendum for Catalonia that the Spanish courts and government said was illegal.

Nine Catalan separatists received prison sentences for their role in the 2017 referendum ranging from nine to 13 years. They were pardoned in July but Puigdemont, who fled, was not.

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