Ousted Catalan president and 4 others surrender to Belgian authorities for possible extradition to Spain

The ousted president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, and four former regional politicians turned themselves in to Belgian police Sunday and were awaiting a ruling on whether they will face extradition to Spain.

A Spanish judge on Friday issued an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont and the others, who are currently in Belgium. They face charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds in connection with Catalonia’s hotly contested bid to secede from Spain.

Puigdemont flew to Brussels days after he unilaterally declared Catalonia’s independence Oct. 27. In response, Spain’s central government ousted the region’s leaders and called elections for a new Catalan government on Dec. 21.

A Belgian investigative judge questioned Puigdemont and his associates Sunday and has until Monday morning to decide the next steps in their case, said Gilles Dejemeppe, a spokesman for the Brussels prosecutor’s office.

They could be jailed or remain free during an extradition process, Dejemeppe said.

After hours of questioning, the judge released the five late Sunday night as they await a decision on next steps, according to Belgian broadcaster VRT. They were prohibited from leaving Belgium without the judge’s permission.

“The request made this afternoon by the Brussels’ Prosecutor’s Office for the provisional release of all persons sought has been granted by the investigative judge,” a statement from the prosecutor’s office said.

Cristina Saenz Perez, a researcher at the Center for European Law and Internationalization at the University of Leicester, said it is “highly unlikely” that the judge will not comply with Spain’s international arrest warrant and authorize extradition.

“I don’t think Belgium wants to get into this battle,” she said.

She added that the European Arrest Warrant system, established in 2004, was created to expedite extraditions between European Union countries.

“It is a mechanism for the member states to trust each other,” she said.

When international arrest warrants are denied, Perez said, it is usually in cases in which those facing arrest risk human rights violations in the countries seeking their extradition.

Still, Puigdemont and his associates have the right to contest any ruling, and that could drag out the process for a month or two, Perez said. The former Catalan leader has said that he does not have faith he would receive a fair trial in Spain but that he will cooperate with the Belgian judicial system.

The outcome of the Dec. 21 elections is anything but clear.

An opinion poll published by Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper Sunday forecast a tight election between parties for and against Catalonia ending the region’s century-old ties to the rest of Spain.

The poll predicts that pro-secession parties would win between 66 and 69 seats, fewer than the 72 seats they won two years ago. Sixty-eight seats are needed for a majority.

The crisis of governance in Catalonia has divided Spaniards in the region and across the rest of the country.

Walking in the southern Spanish city of Granada late Sunday night, professor Juan Antonio Diaz, 66, said he would like to see Puigdemont in jail.

“He would have time to meditate and think about the fact that he has been an idiot,” Diaz said.

Diaz faults both the Catalan government and Spain’s central government for failing to engage in constructive dialogue about the issue of Catalan independence.

“We have had a confrontation between the central government and the government of Catalonia like two bulls, or two trains,” working without intelligence, Diaz said.

Albert Sanchez, however, worried that the move to arrest Puigdemont would aggravate what he sees as an already deep division between people in Catalonia and those in the rest of Spain.

“All we are doing is radicalizing them more,” said Sanchez, 33, who is a psychologist. “We are widening the divide.”

He said he thinks the central government was too stubborn and refused to work with Catalans during the last several months.

“We could have solved this peacefully — not that we are at war — without talk of prison. I think we want to subdue them.”

Celia Pena, 30, an English teacher, would rather see Catalonia gone from Spain. “I am fine with them leaving,” she said. “They pose problems that can’t be solved.”

Bernhard is a special correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


UPDATES:

7:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 5:35 a.m.

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