Sacked Catalan leader freed but must stay in Belgium

BRUSSELS • Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was released after less than a day in custody as a court in Brussels considers how to respond to a Spanish demand for his arrest.

Mr Puigdemont, 54, and four former members of his government are barred from leaving Belgium without the court's consent and must comply with all summons made by judicial or police authorities, the Brussels prosecutor's office said in a statement early yesterday.

Mr Puigdemont and the other separatists had turned themselves in to police on Sunday morning.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked extraordinary powers last month to reassert his authority over Catalonia and fire Mr Puigdemont and his government.

Since then, eight politicians and two activists have been jailed pending trial in Spain, and an arrest warrant is out to bring Mr Puigdemont and his colleagues back from Belgium.

"It had been looking positive for Rajoy as he seemed to be trying to restore order in Catalonia in a restrained way," said Dr Caroline Gray, a lecturer at Aston University in the UK who specialises in nationalist movements. "The jailings have made everything more problematic."

The Belgian judge's decision leaves Mr Puigdemont free for now to continue to challenge Mr Rajoy, who called regional elections for Dec 21 in a bid to draw a line under the secessionist challenge.

Mr Puigdemont will appear on Nov 17 before a court in Brussels, which will decide whether to execute Spain's Nov 3 order to hand him over.

Including time for possible appeals, the former Catalan leader could extend his stay in Belgium to as long as three months.

Mr Puigdemont insists that Catalonia earned the right to declare independence following a banned referendum last month and has described his detained colleagues as "political prisoners".

On Sunday, protesters in Catalan cities took to the streets to demand their release. In Barcelona, city police said about 350 people gathered on the central University Square, shouting "freedom" and carrying posters that read "freedom for political prisoners". Others stuck posters demanding their release on walls throughout the city.

Mr Puigdemont said he was not convinced by guarantees of a fair trial back home, denouncing the "enormous pressure and political influence on judicial power in Spain".

An opinion poll published last Saturday by La Vanguardia newspaper showed that the regional election was too close to call, with projections for a near-even split of seats for pro-independence and non-separatist parties.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline 'Sacked Catalan leader freed but must stay in Belgium'. Print Edition | Subscribe