Brussels (Brussels Morning) Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who is sought by Spanish authorities for his role in organising the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, was arrested in Italy on Thursday. Courts there will decide whether he is to be extradited to his home country.
Puigdemont fled Spain for Belgium after the Spanish authorities clamped down on the organisers of the independence referendum, which was declared unconstitutional in Spain. Initially protected by his immunity from prosecution as a member of the European Parliament, his immunity was rescinded by the EP in March, an outcome upheld by the EU’s General Court.
The Catalan separatist leader was arrested in the town of Alghero in Sardinia, which has strong Catalan ties, while attending a cultural festival there in his capacity as an MEP. He is scheduled to appear before the court of appeal in Sassari, which will ultimately decide whether he should be extradited to Spain, where he will be facing charges of sedition.
The initial hearing would not immediately rule on his extradition, and must first decide whether to confirm his arrest or release him. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called on Puigdemont to submit to the Spanish courts, “exactly like any other citizen”.
Nine other separatist leaders have been tried on the same sedition charges related to the referendum, and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2019. Sanchez’s government pardoned the nine in June in a show of goodwill designed to promote dialogue with Catalonia on the future of the region, but insists that Puigdemont still needs to face the courts.
Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert told Reuters he believes the MEP’s arrest by Italian authorities was a mistake, maintaining Italy should not have acted upon Madrid’s European arrest warrant until the top EU court has ruled on Puigdemont’s appeal of his loss of parliamentary immunity. According to Bekaert’s interpretation, the Catalan leader should remain free until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) confirms that his immunity was revoked.
Puigdemont was previously arrested in Germany in 2018, but ultimately avoided extradition. Until now, Belgium has rejected all of Madrid’s calls to extradite him. Last week, Puigdemont travelled freely to Paris, with no attempt being made by the French authorities to detain him.