Ex-Catalonia regional chief Puigdemont released from Italian jail

Judge on Sardinia rules Carles Puigdemont can go free ahead of an October 4 hearing on Spain extradition.

Catalan leader Carle Puigdemont, sought by Spain for a failed 2017 secession bid, was released following a court hearing [Gloria Calvi]

Catalan separatist leader Carle Puigdemont has been released from jail on the Italian island of Sardinia after a judge ruled that he could go free ahead of an October 4 extradition hearing.

Puigdemont left the jail in Sassari on Friday, a day after he had been detained by police. He is wanted in Spain for sedition for leading a 2017 secession bid for the Catalonia region, where he served as regional president at the time.

Hours before his release, Judge Plinia Clara Azzena ruled that Puigdemont was free to travel without restrictions. The order came after the public prosecutor’s office agreed he was neither a flight nor a security risk, but stressed that Puigdemont’s arrest when he entered Italy, on the basis of a European arrest warrant issued by Spain, was legal.

Now it remains to be seen whether Puigdemont will be handed over to Spain or not. Until then, he is not allowed to leave Sardinia.

Azzena and two other judges will hold next month’s hearing to rule on Spain’s extradition.

Puigdemont’s Italian lawyer Agostinangelo Marras told reporters outside the court in Sassari that when the judge asked Puigdemont whether he wanted to be returned to Spain, his client replied “no”.

Marras said the three-judge panel would take up the extradition request and decide whether the request has merits. He said the process was expected to take “a few weeks”.

Puigdemont followed the late afternoon hearing via video link from the jail in Sassari.

Police transferred Puigdemont to a jail in the city of Sassari on Thursday night after he was detained on an international warrant at Alghero’s airport. Alghero, a city on the island’s northwest coast, is hosting the traditional Catalan folklore festival that Puigdemont had been to attend.

Sardinia has strong Catalan cultural roots and its own independence movement.

“Freedom, freedom,” shouted demonstrators outside the court in Sassari. They held signs in a Sardinian dialect proclaiming, “Democracy, the Sardinian nation supports the Catalan nation,” and held the flags of Sardinia and Spain’s Catalonia region.

A police officer stands behind a Catalonia independence flag and a banner with the image of Carle Puigdemont reading ‘Puigdemont, our leader’ as people protest outside the Italian consulate in Barcelona, Spain [Joan Mateu/AP Photo]

Puigdemont currently holds a seat in the European Union’s parliament, although that legislature stripped him of parliamentary immunity.

His detention caused a political commotion in Spain, where the topic of Catalan independence has for decades been a deeply divisive issue. Separatists demanded his release and scheduled street protests, while right-of-centre parties said he should face justice.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said during an official visit to the Canary Islands on Friday that he has “respect for all legal procedures opened in Spain, in Europe and, in this case, in Italy”.

Sánchez, who recently opened direct talks with Catalan regional leaders, said that “dialogue is the only way to bring together Catalans who have distinct opinions and to bring together Catalans with the rest of Spain”.

Just under half of Catalans want to break away from Spain, opinion polls indicate. Most Spaniards do not want Catalonia to be granted independence.

It is not the first time Spanish courts have tried to detain Puigdemont abroad. 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.

Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after holding an independence referendum for Catalonia that the Spanish courts and government said was illegal.

Nine Catalan separatists later received prison sentences for their role in the 2017 referendum ranging from nine to 13 years. They were pardoned in July, but Puigdemont, who fled, was not.

Source: News Agencies