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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Sacked Catalan leader turns himself in to Belgian police

A Belgian judge will decide by Monday morning whether to execute an EU arrest warrant for Carles Puigdemont and four other ex-officials issued by Spain

Catalonia's deposed leader Carles Puigdemont and four ex-advisers have turned themselves in to Belgian police. AFP / LLUIS GENE
Catalonia's deposed leader Carles Puigdemont and four ex-advisers have turned themselves in to Belgian police. AFP / LLUIS GENE

Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four other former regional ministers have turned themselves into Belgian police, the Brussels prosecutor’s office said on Sunday.

"This morning the five people wanted by Spain presented themselves to police in Brussels. They were put in custody at 9.17am [12.17pm UAE time]," a spokesman for Brussels prosecutor Gilles Dejemeppe told a news conference.

"The judge will hear the people this afternoon. He has until tomorrow morning to decide."

It follows the issuing of a European arrest warrant for all five ex-officials on Friday, as Spain seeks their return for an investigation related to Catalonia's secession bid.

The documents cited rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust relating to the independence campaign.

Puigdemont and his colleagues had fled to Belgium this week after being removed from power by Spanish authorities as part of a crackdown to block the region’s illegal declaration of independence.

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The associates are Meritxell Serret (former agriculture minister), Antoni Comín (former health minister), Lluís Puig (former culture minister), and Clara Ponsatí (former education minister).

The Spanish high court ordered on Thursday the arrest of eight of their colleagues who had returned to Spain from Belgium, so the stakes are clearly high.

Under European arrest-warrant procedures, individuals are detained and brought before judges within 24 hours. A court then has 15 days to decide whether to execute the arrest order, according to the Belgian Justice Ministry. Including time for possible appeals, a final decision must be taken within three months. Puigdemont would then have to be surrendered to Spain within 10 days.

“I won’t flee justice; I’m willing to submit to justice, but to real justice,” the ousted leader said in an interview with Belgium’s RTBF television on Friday. He said the Spanish courts “can’t guarantee a fair and independent sentence that will be free of the enormous weight and influence of politics”.

“You mustn’t forget that we’re the legitimate government," Puigdemont said.

Catalonia's statehood push has tipped Spain into its worst political crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago.

Following a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalan lawmakers on October 27, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fired the previous government and imposed direct rule over the region.

Rajoy also called a regional election for December 21.

On Saturday, Puigdemont called for all the separatist parties in the region to form a coalition to fight in the elections.

Writing on Twitter, Puigdemont said: “It’s the moment for all democrats to unite. For Catalonia, for the freedom of political prisoners and the Republic.”

The latest opinion poll published on Saturday by La Vanguardia newspaper shows the result of the December elections is too close to call.

The survey by pollster GAD3 showed the secessionist group including ERC and PDeCAT that received a majority in 2015 with the backing of the radical party CUP cannot rely on winning.

The same platform with CUP support would get between 66 and 69 seats in new elections compared with the 68 needed for a majority and the 72 they won two years ago, according to the poll taken from October 30 to November 3.