November 6, 2017 / 3:06 AM / 2 months ago

Catalonia's ex-leader granted freedom to campaign for independence

BRUSSELS/MADRID (Reuters) - Catalonia’s former leader Carles Puigdemont was spared custody on Monday, when a Brussels court ruled he could remain at liberty in Belgium until it had heard Spanish charges against him of rebellion.

Sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont makes a statement in this still image from video calling for the release of "the legitimate government of Catalonia", after a Spanish judge ordered nine Catalan secessionist leaders to be held in custody pending a potential trial over the region's independence push, in Brussels, Belgium, November 2, 2017. TV3 via REUTERS TV

The court’s decision means Puigdemont, who left Spain last month after Madrid fired his secessionist government and dissolved the Catalan parliament, is free to campaign for independence in an election in the region on Dec 21.

Puigdemont said on Monday his government’s actions were legitimate and criticised the Spanish judicial system for a “clear lack of independence and neutrality”.

The December vote is shaping up to be a de facto independence referendum.

Puigdemont’s PDeCAT and another secessionist party said at the weekend they might run on a combined ticket, but would need to make a decision on any formal alliance - which might also include other parties - by a deadline of Tuesday.

Alliances could however also form after the election.

The independence push has dragged Spain into its worst political crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago. It has deeply divided the country, fuelling anti-Spanish feelings in Catalonia and nationalist tendencies elsewhere.

Puigdemont turned himself in to Belgian police on Sunday along with four of his ex-ministers, after Spain issued a European arrest warrant on charges of rebellion as well as misuse of public funds.

All five are barred from leaving Belgium without a judge’s consent.

They will appear before a Belgian court on Nov. 17 for a hearing to discuss the arrest warrant, prosecutors in Brussels said in a statement.

A man thought to be sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is seen seated inside the Belgian Prosecutor's office in Brussels, Belgium, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman


Puigdemont, writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, called for scrutiny of the Spanish judicial system and said the crisis could be solved only with a political and not a judicial solution.

“Does anyone think that the sacked Catalan government can expect a fair and independent hearing, uninfluenced by political and media pressure? I do not,” he wrote.

Spain’s central government took control of Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of the national economy, after local leaders held an independence referendum on Oct. 1 despite a Constitutional Court ban.

A van thought to be transporting sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont leaves the Belgian prosecutors office in Brussels, Belgium, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The region’s parliament then passed a unilateral declaration of independence. In response, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fired the government and called the snap regional elections.

Eight of Puigdemont’s allies stayed behind in Spain and have been detained on similar accusations to the ones the deposed leader faces.

On Sunday, the first part of a GAD3 survey showed that pro-independence parties would win the election in Catalonia but may not gain the parliamentary majority needed to continue with secession.

On Monday, the second part showed just one in seven people in the region believe the current standoff between Barcelona and Madrid will end in independence, while more than two thirds think the process has been bad for the economy.

Published in La Vanguardia newspaper, that survey polled 1,233 people between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3.

Optimism that a negotiated solution would be found was low, with just over a fifth of respondents thinking the crisis would lead to talks between regional authorities and Madrid.

The uncertainty has prompted more than 2,000 companies to relocate their legal headquarters out of the region since Oct. 1. The Bank of Spain has said that if the conflict persists it could lead to slower growth and job creation.

Additional reporting by Angus Berwick; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Andrew Roche

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