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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Self-exiled Catalan leaders set to return to Spain: court

Spain's Supreme Court has withdrawn an international arrest warrant for former Catalonia leader Carles Puigdemont ahead of new regional elections after independence controversy

A Spanish judge has withdrawn arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former cabinet who were fighting extradition from Belgium. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)
A Spanish judge has withdrawn arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former cabinet who were fighting extradition from Belgium. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

Spain's Supreme Court has withdrawn an international arrest warrant for Catalonia's former leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his cabinet members saying the politicians had shown willingness to return to Spain.

All five travelled to Belgium following an unilateral declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament on Oct. 27, considered illegal by Spanish courts.

The withdrawal of the arrest warrant also prevented more than one European jurisdiction overseeing the case, the court said. They face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement over the push for independence. The charges carry maximum penalties of decades in prison.

The five had been due to hear a decision on their extradition on December 14, a week before regional elections called by the Spanish government to quash the independence movement.

Political parties in Catalonia started campaigning at midnight Monday for an election which is shaping up as a close fight between Catalans who support secession and those who favour remaining in Spain.

Voters are choosing regional lawmakers and top government officials to replace the pro-independence officials removed by the national government in late October.

Hours before pro-secession parties held evening rallies to launch their campaigns, a Supreme Court judge in Madrid ruled that four prominent members of the region's independence movement must remain jailed without bail.

They include former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who heads the slate of the left-republican ERC party.

Junqueras was unseated in late October along with Puigdemont and the rest of his Cabinet after regional lawmakers passed a declaration of independence that Spanish authorities deemed illegal.

Six other Catalan politicians who had been jailed with Junqueras since early November were released late Monday on bail.

Puigdemont addressed a political rally in Catalonia via video conference at the official midnight kickoff of the campaign.

"The results of Oct. 1 are still valid," Puigdemont told Catalan public television TV3. "There are many of us who don't give the Spanish government the authority to dissolve a legitimate legislature."