Spain drops European arrest warrant for sacked Catalan leader

MADRID (AFP) – Spain dropped its European arrest warrant on Tuesday for Catalonia’s sacked leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his deputies who fled to Belgium, but will arrest the separatists if they return, the nation’s top court said.

In a surprise move, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena withdrew the warrant as the five “appear to have shown their intention to return to Spain” to take part in the snap regional polls on December 21.

Madrid called the election after Catalan lawmakers declared independence in October, bringing to a head Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

But the judge has retained the Spanish arrest warrant, which means they will be detained upon arrival in the country, the court said.

Paul Bekaert, one of the deposed Catalan president’s lawyers, told Belgium’s L’Echo daily he would “not leave Belgium”.

File photo shows ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont attending a presentation of the candidate list for the Catalan regional elections in Oostkamp, Belgium. – AP

The judge said the European warrant would complicate the overall probe into the region’s leaders.

Some of them are still in Spain – either in jail or out on bail – and all are facing charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

He said Belgium could reject some of the charges in the warrant, meaning it could agree to the extradition of Puigdemont and the four others – but with restrictions, and only for certain offences.

This in turn would stop Spain from prosecuting the restricted offences, thereby creating inequalities with those already held in Spain who would be probed on the full charges, Llarena argued.

It is unclear what charges would have posed a problem, but there has been controversy in Spain over the offence of rebellion, which carries up to 30 years in jail and has been criticised as “disproportionate” by some critics in the legal world.

Belgian prosecutors said a judge would now officially end the extradition proceedings.