Catalan ex-leader Puigdemont freed temporarily in Sardinia

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Catalan separatist leader and MEP Carles Puigdemont arrives for a committee meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont vowed on Saturday to keep traveling throughout Europe to campaign for the region’s independence from Spain but confirmed he would appear at an Oct. 4 hearing in Italy to decide whether he will be extradited to Spain to face sedition charges. (AP Photo/Riccardo Pareggiani)

SASSARI, Sardinia (AP) — Catalonia’s former separatist leader Carles Puigdemont walked out of a Sardinian courthouse Monday after a judge delayed a decision on Spain’s extradition request and said he was free to travel.

Puigdemont left with his lawyers, shook hands and embraced supporters, saying he was “very happy,” as he got in a van and was whisked away. He then said on social media that he would participate in the afternoon’s session of the European Parliament by video link from the Mediterranean island.

His Italian lawyer, Agostinangelo Marras, told reporters that a decision on extradition to Spain, where he is accused of sedition, is pending decisions on two questions already being considered by European courts. But he said his client is free to travel as he pleases in the meantime.

“He is absolutely free. The court will set a new date after the European court decides on the two pending questions. One is the immunity of President Piugdemont, and the other is the legitimacy of the Spanish judge to issue the arrest warrant,″ Piugdemont’s Italian lawyer, Agostinoangelo Marras, told The Associated Press.

The Italian court first wants to see how the European Union’s general court will rule on Puigdemont’s appeal to the lifting of his immunity as a European Parliament member that this same court confirmed in July. Secondly, the Italian court will wait to see if the European Union Court of Justice rules that the Spanish Supreme Court has the authority to request the extradition of Puigdemont, after a Belgian court said in January that it didn’t when it requested the return of another associate of Puigdemont.

Puigdemont was arrested on Sept. 23 in Sardinia, where he had arrived from his home in Belgium to attend a Catalan cultural festival at the invitation of a Sardinian separatist movement. He was freed by a judge a day later pending Monday’s extradition hearing.

Puigdemont and fellow separatists Clara Ponsatí and Toni Comín had their immunity as European Parliament members lifted earlier this year as requested by Spain after the European Union’s general court said that they didn’t demonstrate they were at risk of being arrested.

Ponsatí and Comín were among a contingent of high-profile separatists who traveled to Sardinia to show their support for Puigdemont on Monday, triggering a request sent by a Spanish judge to Italy to have them detained as well. There was no indication that they had been taken into custody.

A group of about 20 supporters rallied outside the courthouse as Puigdemont arrived for the hearing. Some members of the crowd shouted “freedom!” and waved Catalan separatist flags.

Puigdemont, 58, has successfully avoided extradition since taking up residence in Waterloo, Belgium, after leading an illegal 2017 secession attempt by the wealthy Catalonia region in Spain’s northeast.

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.

“We have faced three extradition orders in three different jurisdictions: the Belgian, the German and the Italian,” Puigdemont said. “It is the moment to tell Spain, ‘Enough!’ that this path does not lead anywhere and does not help solve a political conflict between Catalonia and Spain.”

Several of Puigdemont’s cohorts who stayed in Barcelona after the failed secession attempt were arrested and found guilty of sedition and misusing public funds.

In an attempt to defuse the political crisis he inherited from his conservative predecessor, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned nine imprisoned separatist leaders in June. Puigdemont, and others like him who fled, couldn’t benefit from the act of grace since they have yet to face justice.

The detention of Puigdemont two weeks ago comes with the former regional president struggling to retain his preeminent role in the Catalonia separatist movement, which has surged in popularity over the past two decades.

Puigdemont’s party has lost the regional presidency of Catalonia and is now the minor member of a coalition led by a separatist rival which is leading talks with Sánchez’s government to resolve the festering crisis. Puigdemont’s party isn’t participating in the negotiations which its leaders have criticized as a distraction from rebuilding strength for another unilateral secession bid.

“While some are trying to talk with the Spanish government, there are others like Puigdemont who are undermining the institutions of the state,” said Jordi Puigneró, the leading member of Puigdemont’s party in Catalonia’s government.

Despite already enjoying a good degree of self-rule, polls and election results show that roughly half of Catalans want to form a new state. The other half wants to remain in Spain given the centuries of cultural and family ties linking Catalonia with the rest of the country.

The majority of Spaniards are against the loss of Catalonia, which for decades has represented a land of opportunity for those who moved there from poorer regions.

Sardinia has historic and cultural ties with Catalonia that date back to the 14th century.

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Colleen Barry reported from Milan, and Joseph Wilson from Barcelona, Spain.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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