Italy to release detained Catalan leader sought by Spain

ROME (AP) — A judge in Sardinia will order jailed Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont released from jail later on Friday ahead of a court decision on Spain’s extradition request, Puigdemont’s lawyer 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.”

Marras said a three-judge panel would take up the extradition request and decide “in a very short time.” Marras later said the process was expected to take “a few weeks.” Meanwhile, according to the judge’s decision, Puigdemont must remain in Sardinia pending outcome of the extradition request.

Puigdemont was taken into custody 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 sympathizers on the Mediterranean island.

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

Police transferred Carles 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 northwest coast, is hosting the traditional Catalan folklore festival that Puigdemont had been to attend.

“Freedom, freedom,” shouted demonstrators outside the courthouse in Sassari. They 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. While serving as the region’s president in 2016-2017, 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 the topic of Catalan independence has for decades been a deeply divisive issue. Separatists demanded his release and scheduled street protests, while right-of-center parties said he should face justice.

Marras, the lawyer, 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 Sánchez 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.”

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

Just under half of Catalans want to break away from Spain, opinion polls indicate. Most Spaniards don’t 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. Puigdemont’s lawyer in Spain, Gonzalo Boye, insisted the warrant issued in 2019 that provided the basis Italian authorities detaining him has been suspended.

Boye told Spanish radio station SER: “We have to see whether the arrest warrant is enforceable. That’ll be up to the legal authorities” in Italy.

The Spanish Supreme Court judge handling the case, Pablo Llarena, sent a letter to the European Union’s Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation 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. Spain’s Supreme Court, which issued the European arrest warrant, made no official comment.

It’s not the first time Spanish courts have tried to detain Puigdemont abroad. After a Belgian court declined to send him back in 2017, the following year he was arrested in Germany but a court there also refused to extradite him.

Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after holding an independence referendum for Catalonia that the Spanish courts and government said was illegal.

Nine Catalan separatists later received prison sentences for their role in the 2017 referendum ranging from nine to 13 years. They were pardoned in July, but Puigdemont, who fled, was not.

Puigdemont’s being taken into custody in Italy at Spain’s request triggered anger by some Italian politicians, including Democratic Party lawmaker Romina Mura, who is Sardinian.

“To arrest a representative of the Catalan people who sits in the European Parliament, who is traveling to carry out his functions and on top of that arrest him in Sardinia in a city of Catalan tradition and culture like Alghero, is a relevant political deed, even if carried out as a judicial act,” Mura said.

Earlier in the week, Sardinian media reported that Puigdemont had been invited to a closed-door gathering in Oristano, Sardinia, of sympathizers of a Sardinian independence movement.

Alghero’s historic and cultural ties date with Catalonia date back to the 14th century, when a Catalan-Aragonese force won a naval battle off the Sardinian coast and the forces’ commander entered triumphantly into the city on Sardinia’s northwest coast.

Some 20% of Alghero’s residents speak a Sardinian dialect derived from the Catalan tongue and recognized by both the national government of Italy and the island’s regional government.

So strong are the links through the centuries that the Catalan regional government keeps a delegation in Alghero, which is now a popular, picturesque tourist town. Alghero’s nickname is “Barceloneta” or “Little Barcelona,” Catalonia’s principal city.

___

Renata Brito in Barcelona and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed.