Carles Puigdemont freed after arrest in Sardinia, says lawyer

Former Catalan leader free to travel but must attend extradition hearing on 4 October

The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who was detained in Sardinia on Thursday under an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish court over his alleged role in the failed bid for regional independence, was released from custody on the Italian island late on Friday afternoon.

Puigdemont, now an MEP living in Belgium, could face extradition to Spain over his alleged involvement in the unilateral independence referendum and the subsequent unilateral declaration of independence in October 2017.

He stands accused of sedition and misuse of public funds, for which Spain’s supreme court issued a European and international arrest warrant almost two years ago.

The former regional chief was arrested on Thursday evening while on his way to attend a cultural event in the Sardinian city of Alghero and meet the regional head of Sardinia and its ombudsman.

After a hearing on Friday at the appeal court in the Sardinian city of Sassari, Judge Plinia Clara Azzena freed Puigdemont and ruled that he could travel without restrictions. An extradition hearing, which Puigdemont must attend, was set for 4 October.

The judge told the Associated Press that although she had deemed his arrest valid based on the documents she had seen, Puigdemont was free to travel.

Speaking as he was released from prison, the former Catalan premier said he was fine, adding: “Spain never misses a chance to make a fool of itself.”

Puigdemont and two of his former ministers, Antoni Comín and Carla Ponsatí – who also fled Spain and are also MEPs – were stripped of their immunity by the European parliament in March this year. But the decision to lift their legal immunity can still be appealed.

One of Puigdemont’s lawyers, Gonzalo Boye, said his client had travelled to Sardinia in his capacity as an MEP, and claimed the Spanish arrest warrant issued for the former Catalan chief had been suspended. However, a Spanish judicial spokesperson said that the supreme court arrest warrant remained active.

Previous attempts to extradite Puigdemont from Germany and Belgium have proven unsuccessful.

Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said Puigdemont ought to face justice, adding that he respected “all legal procedures opened in Spain, in Europe and, in this case, in Italy”.

News of the arrest led pro-independence demonstrators to stage a protest outside the Italian consulate in Barcelona, while Sardinian separatists gathered outside the court in Sassari in solidarity with Puigdemont.

“Sardinians have found it painful to see their land transformed into such an ugly scene, where the Italian police arrested a Catalan on the orders of the Spanish magistrates,” said Antonio Moro, the president of the Partito Sardo d’Azione – the independence party to which Sardinia’s governor, Christian Solinas, belongs. He added: “It’s something that mortifies us.”

The arrest came a week after Sánchez met the current pro-independence Catalan president, Pere Aragonès, for talks aimed at resolving the political impasse over the future of the region.

Despite Puigdemont’s arrest and pending legal proceedings, Sánchez said on Friday that “dialogue is the only way to bring together Catalans who have different opinions and to bring together Catalans with the rest of Spain”.

Sánchez’s coalition government has shown a far less confrontational approach to the Catalan question than its predecessor. The conservative government of Mariano Rajoy deployed police to stop the October 2017 referendum, which was ruled illegal and unconstitutional by Spanish courts. With the support of the senate, Rajoy then used constitutional powers to assume control of the region, dissolve its parliament and call new elections.

Sánchez’s more moderate approach has been fiercely criticised by his opponents. In June, the government took the controversial and divisive step of pardoning nine of the Catalan independence leaders who were convicted for their roles in the unsuccessful push for secession.

The prime minister acknowledged the decision could prove unpopular, but said it was “the best one for Catalonia, the best one for Spain, and the one which most closely represents the spirit of coexistence and harmony set out in the Spanish constitution”.

Puidgdemont was not included in the pardons as he has never faced trial.

Aragonès offered his support to Puigdemont, saying the “persecution and judicial repression” had to stop, and repeating calls for an amnesty and for Catalan self-determination.

The Sardinian city of Alghero hosted a significant Catalan community after it was conquered in the 14th century by the Aragonese crown and strong cultural links have been maintained to this day, with its Catalan dialect still recognised as a minority language.

Puigdemont was due to be guest of honour at the three-day AdiFolk festival, where Catalan folk musicians and dancers will perform. He was also due to attend an assembly of Sardinian separatists on Sunday in Oristano. Sardinia has its own independence movement, with activists campaigning in 2014 for the island to be sold to Switzerland.

Contributors

Sam Jones in Madrid and Angela Giuffrida in Rome

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