x

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Judge refuses to free four Catalan leaders as elections near

Six other former ministers who were also remanded in custody last month were released on bail of €100,000 each

Catalonia pro-independence supporters hold banners reading 'Republic' and 'Repression' on December 4, 2017 near Estremera, in Madrid region, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Catalonia pro-independence supporters hold banners reading 'Republic' and 'Repression' on December 4, 2017 near Estremera, in Madrid region, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Catalonia's sacked vice president Oriol Junqueras and three other separatist leaders will remain in prison during a probe over their role in the region's independence drive, a Spanish judge decided on Monday, as critical Catalan elections approach.

Six other former ministers who were also remanded in custody last month were released on bail of €100,000 each as an investigation into charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds continues, the Madrid court said in a statement.

The bail was paid by a major grassroots secessionist group, the Catalan Nationalist Assembly.

It called for protests on Monday night in cities across Catalonia for the release of the other prisoners detained in a political crisis that has rattled Europe.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont meanwhile attended an extradition hearing on Monday in Belgium. He escaped there, claiming he would not get a fair trial at home, after his region's parliament declared independence on October 27.

Spain is seeking to have Puigdemont and four of his former ministers who fled with him sent back to face charges over their role in the independence drive.

The Belgian judge will decide on December 14 whether to uphold the European arrest warrant, their lawyers said after the hearing.

_______________

Read more:

Catalonia bid to break free from Madrid will hurt Spain's economy

Spanish PM, in Catalonia, calls for big turnout at December election

_______________

The ruling that Junqueras, former regional interior minister Joaquim Forn and two civil society leaders must stay in prison came as the official campaign for Catalan elections on December 21 was due to kick off.

Madrid called the new elections after the independence declaration, while dismissing Catalonia's government and suspending the region's autonomy.

After receiving a request to free the 10 Catalan leaders, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena decided there was a risk that Junqueras and three others would repeat their alleged offences if released.

But Marta Rovira, Junqueras's deputy in his ERC party, said the decision was politically motivated. He was staying in prison "because they know he is the best candidate," she claimed.

Madrid hopes the elections will restore normality to the wealthy northeastern region, which declared independence in vain following the referendum.

Puigdemont, Junqueras and other former ministers are candidates for the elections, despite being in exile or prison.

Separatist parties have repeatedly accused Madrid of taking "political prisoners" and "repression," and the decision to keep some Catalan leaders in jail is likely to magnify those claims.

Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso said the decision to keep the four separatist leaders in jail "will certainly help the separatists to focus their messaging on the alleged repression by Spanish authorities, rather than on any prospective policy issues".

"The hope is that this will keep separatist voters mobilised, as low turnout motivated by exhaustion with the pro-independence process is the main fear of separatist parties," he added.

The early election is an attempt to find a democratic way out of the political crisis.

The vote is shaping up as a plebiscite between those for and against secession from Spain, with polls predicting a close race between the two camps.

The latest government-commissioned poll says that pro-independence parties will lose their slim majority in the Catalan parliament in the election.

The much-watched CIS survey released on Monday said that the three pro-independence parties would only win 66 or 67 seats in a new Catalan parliament.

The three held a narrow majority of 72 out of the 135 seats until the chamber was dissolved last month.

Puigdemont launched his campaign last month from Brussels with a flurry of high-profile media appearances and a demand that he be returned as the "legitimate" president of Catalonia.

His lawyer said at the weekend that Puigdemont would remain in Belgium until after the Catalan elections.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and fellow opponents of Catalan independence, meanwhile, have hitched their hopes on a record turnout on December 21 to return a legislature in favour of unity with Spain.