Lawyer: Italy to free jailed Catalan leader wanted by Spain

ROME (AP) — A judge in Sardinia will shortly order Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont released from jail ahead of an Italian court decision on Spain’s extradition request, Puigdemont’s Italian lawyer said after a courthouse hearing Friday.

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

Puigdemont followed the late afternoon hearing via video link from a jail in Sassari, where he was taken on Thursday night shortly after being detained by Italian police on an European warrant.

Marras said a three-judge panel would take up the extradition request and decide whether the request has merits. He said the process was expected to take “a few weeks.”

The Italian lawyer said he expected that Puigdemont would have to stay in Sardinia until a decision was made on Spain’s extradition bid. But Puigdemont’s lawyer in Spain, Gonzalo Boye, told The AP that his client wouldn’t have to remain on the Mediterranean island.

“The sun is out,″ Boye tweeted shortly before the hearing ended, in a sign of optimism.

The judge’s decision, specifying any conditions, would be issued in writing later on Friday, Marras said.

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 Puigdemont to a jail in the city of Sassari on Thursday night after he was detained on an international warrant at Alghero’s 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.

Before Friday’s hearing, 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 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. Gonzalo Boye, his lawyer, has insisted the warrant issued in 2019 that provided the basis for Italian authorities to detain 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.

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 force’s commander triumphantly entered the city on Sardinia’s northwest coast.

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

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