(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Catalan MEP Carles Puigdemont gestures during a joint news conference with Catalan MEPs Antoni Comin and Clara Ponsati regarding their immunity at the European Parliament, in Brussels, Belgium June 3, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo
By Joan Faus and Jordi Rubio
BARCELONA/ROME (Reuters) -A court in Sardinia was expected on Friday to release former Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont from custody but order him to remain on the Italian island following his arrest there on sedition charges.
Spain demanded Puigdemont’s extradition but Catalonia’s regional chief criticised the government, saying the arrest on Thursday was a blow to attempts at reconciliation between Madrid and the wealthy region on the Mediterranean coast.
Puigdemont was Catalonia’s leader at the time of a vote on independence from Spain in 2017 which courts said was illegal and triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
Some Italian and Spanish media said a court in the Sardinian city of Sassari had already ordered Puigdemont’s release from custody and ordered him to stay on the island to await a decision on whether he should be extradited.
Agostinangelo Marras, a lawyer for Puigdemont in Sardinia, told Reuters the court had yet to take a decision although the state prosecutor said there was no reason to keep him locked up.
“What is obvious is that Carles Puigdemont must submit to (the action of) justice,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.
Sanchez said dialogue was the best way to seek reconciliation, a week after relaunched talks with Catalonia’s separatist government aimed at fostering reconciliation with the northeastern region.
Catalonia’s regional leader, Pere Aragones, said the arrest complicated that dialogue.
“Yesterday’s events clearly show that the Spanish state has not acted in good faith with European justice and do not help to resolve the conflict,” he told reporters.
Police cordoned off a major avenue in the Catalan capital Barcelona after a few hundred protesters gathered in front of the Italian consulate, waving Catalan separatist flags and chanting “Puigdemont is our president” and “Free Puigdemont.”
Puigdemont, 58, has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since late 2017 after Spain accused him of helping to organise the independence referendum.
He has served as a member of the European Parliament since 2019, but was detained by Italian border police at Alghero airport as he arrived in Sardinia from Brussels to attend a cultural event.
The European Parliament stripped him of immunity in March.
If extradited, Puigdemont is likely to face the same Supreme Court trial that sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to lengthy prison terms in 2019 for their role in the 2017 attempt to break away from Spain.
The Spanish government pardoned them in June but said Puigdemont still had to face justice in Spain.
Puigdemont was subject to a European arrest warrant issued by Spain but his chief lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, told reporters in Brussels that there were no grounds to detain him.
Italy’s Justice Ministry said it has no decision-making role in the European arrest warrant procedure.
Catalan separatist expected to be freed until extradition ruling
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