Catalan leader Puigdemont surrenders in Belgium

Fugitive Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has turned himself in to Belgian justice authorities after Spain issued a new warrant for his arrest following the sentencing of 12 of his former colleagues. Puigdemont's office said Friday that he, “in the company of his lawyers, voluntarily appeared before Belgian authorities” in relation to the arrest warrant. It said that Puigdemont rejects the warrant and opposes any attempt to send him back to Spain. It was not immediately clear whether he is still being questioned or held.

Puigdemont and a number of his associates fled to Belgium in October 2017 after they were summoned to court over the secessionist push he led and the holding of an independence referendum that the Spanish government said was illegal.

Puigdemont, who was the Catalan regional premier during the October 2017 independence drive, was not a defendant in the Supreme Court trial that concluded on 14 October with the release of the judges’ ruling and the handing down of convictions. But he and the other six secessionist leaders who fled Spain to avoid arrest have been indirectly affected by the sentence.

The Supreme Court judge who was in charge of investigating the case has on Manday called for European and international arrest warrants against Puigdemont to be reactivated, so that he can be brought back to Spain to face trial for the offenses of sedition and misuse of public funds. For now, only the warrants for Puigdemont’s detention have been reactivated, with the rest to be studied in the coming days.

Judge Pablo Llarena withdrew an arrest warrant against the former Catalan premier, who is currently living in Belgium, after the German authorities refused to hand him over to Spain to face rebellion charges based on his involvement in the October 2017 referendum on secession from Spain and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence. Since then, the Supreme Court has only maintained a domestic arrest warrant for all of those who fled the country in 2017, meaning that they would be detained as soon as they set foot on Spanish soil.

The Supreme Court judge is hopeful that in the wake of the Monday ruling – which has found nine of the jailed Catalan secession leaders guilty of sedition, handing them down jail terms ranging from nine to 13 years – the countries where the politicians fled to will reconsider handing them over to Spain. Puigdemont and former regional ministers Toni Comín, Meritxell Serret and Lluís Puig are all in Belgium; former minister Clara Ponsatí is in Scotland, while ex-general secretary of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) Marta Rovira and the ex-parliamentary leader of the anti-capitalist CUP, Anna Gabriel, are both in Switzerland.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case, the Spanish justice system will not have an easy time convincing their Belgian counterparts to extradite Puigdemont to face sedition charges. As well as the fact that the offense has no clear equivalent in practically any other European criminal code, the strategy adopted by Judge Llarena has already run into difficulties in Belgium and Germany, given that the courts in those countries did not agree with the Spanish justice system’s take on the actions of the former regional premier.

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