Italy to release detained Catalan leader wanted by Spain

Carles Puigdemont was taken into custody on Thursday night when he arrived at an airport in Sardinia.

Carles Puigdemont
Carles Puigdemont

A judge in Sardinia will order jailed Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont released from jail ahead of a court decision on Spain’s extradition request, Puigdemont’s lawyer has said.

Agostinoangelo Marras told reporters outside the courthouse in Sassari, Sardinia, that when the judge asked Puigdemont if he wanted to be returned to Spain, his client replied “no”.

Mr Marras said a three-judge panel will take up the extradition request and decide “in a very short time”. He later said the process was expected to take “a few weeks”.

Italy Spain Puigdemont
Italian lawyer Agostinangelo Marras (Gloria Calvi/AP)

According to the judge’s decision, Puigdemont must remain in Sardinia pending outcome of the extradition request.

Puigdemont was taken into custody on Thursday night when he arrived at an airport in Alghero, Sardinia. He had been invited to attend a Catalan cultural event as well as a meeting a few days later of Sardinian independence sympathisers on the Mediterranean island.

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

Police transferred Puigdemont to a jail in the city of Sassari on Thursday night after he was detained on an international warrant at Alghero–Fertilia Airport.

Alghero, a city on the island’s north-west coast, is hosting the traditional Catalan folklore festival that Puigdemont had been to attend.

Demonstrators outside the courthouse in Sassari 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.

Italy Spain Puigdemont
Demonstrators hold Sardinian and Catalonian flags in Sardinia (Gloria Calvi/AP)

While serving as the Catalan president in 2016-17, Puigdemont pushed for secession from Spain.

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

Puigdemont’s detention caused political commotion in Spain, where 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.

Mr Marras said he spoke with Puigdemont and “I found him well. He has faith that the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible”.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez 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”.

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

Spain Italy Puigdemont
Carles Puigdemont at the European Parliament in Brussels (Francisco Seco/AP)

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

At the heart of the immediate legal matter is whether the warrant issued by Spain seeking Puigdemont’s arrest is valid. His lawyer in Spain, Gonzalo Boye, insisted the warrant issued in 2019 that provided the basis for Italian authorities detaining him has been suspended.

The Spanish Supreme Court judge handling the case, Pablo Llarena, sent a letter to the European Union’s Agency for Criminal Justice Co-operation stating that the arrest warrant is “in force and pending the capture of those accused of rebellion”.

Ultimately, it would be up to the Italian Justice Ministry to approve or deny extradition.

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