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Ex-Catalan leader Puigdemont freed with conditions in Belgium

Last week, Puigdemont said he would go back to Spain only if given unspecified guarantees by the Spanish government.

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. Picture: @catalangov/Twitter.

BRUSSELS - A Belgian judge has granted conditional release to sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his ministers, and the group is scheduled to appear at court within 15 days, Belgian prosecutors said on Monday.

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

“The next step in the proceedings is the appearance of the five defendants before the Chambre du Conseil within the next 15 days,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Puigdemont’s lawyer in Belgium, where he has travelled with four members of his sacked cabinet, said the climate in Spain was “not good” and his client wanted to maintain some distance; but he would cooperate with the courts.

“If they ask, he will cooperate with Spanish and Belgian justice,” lawyer Paul Bekaert told Reuters.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked Puigdemont and his government on Friday, hours after the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence - a vote boycotted by the opposition and declared illegal by Spanish courts.

Puigdemont said on Wednesday he would ignore a court order to return to Spain to answer charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds relating to the region’s secessionist push. He did not turn up at a High Court hearing on Thursday.

“When someone doesn’t appear after being cited by a judge to testify, in Spain or any other EU country, normally an arrest warrant is issued,” said Supreme Court President Carlos Lesmes who is also the head of the General Council of the Judiciary, Spain’s top judicial body.

An arrest warrant would make it virtually impossible for Puigdemont to stand in a snap election in the wealthy region called by the Spanish government for 21 December.

Last week, Puigdemont said he would go back to Spain only if given unspecified guarantees by the Spanish government, puzzling many Catalans who now think he has acted precipitously.

“President, enough is enough,” said the influential Catalan newspaper el Peridico on its front page on Wednesday.

Ebelio Ramos, a pensioner from the pro-independence town of Berga, said he was bemused by Puigdemont’s flight.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking about but when someone does what he did and declares independence and then flees... A president has to fulfil the law and if he doesn‘t, it is better that he stays calm, because if he starts doing something outside the law, he is going to lose everything,” Ramos said.

A decision on a European warrant will be taken by a High Court judge following the testimony of the remaining nine members of Puigdemont’s sacked cabinet, including former vice-president Oriol Junqueras.

Five senior regional lawmakers and the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, were also summoned by the Supreme Court, which handles the cases of people who enjoy parliamentary immunity.

PUZZLED CATALANS

The Supreme Court agreed on Thursday to give one more week to Forcadell and the Catalan lawmakers to prepare their defence and a new hearing will take place on 9 November.

All the members of the dismissed Catalan cabinet but one declined to answer questions from the state prosecutor and the High Court judge who is expected to open an investigation that could take several years and potentially lead to a trial.

The prosecutor asked the judge to remand the Catalan leaders in custody pending an investigation into their role in an illegal push for independence, a source with knowledge of the matter said. The judge is expected to rule on this request on Thursday.

She might also grant them conditional bail or order them to surrender their passports.

The courts have already told the Catalan secessionist leaders to deposit €6.2 million by Friday to cover potential liabilities.

CATALONIA DIVIDED

Following a tumultuous month, attention is gradually turning to the December vote. Protests taking place in central Barcelona on Thursday to support secessionist leaders as they testified in Madrid failed to attract a big crowd.

Cracks have appeared within the pro-independence coalition of centre-right and far-left parties as well as inside Puigdemont’s own PdeCat (Democratic Catalan Party) where some of his allies are now pushing for a negotiated solution with the central government.

The struggle has also divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.

Two recent opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane.

But an official regional survey published on Tuesday showed some 48.7% of Catalans believe the region should be independent, up from 41.1% in June and the highest since December 2014.

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