Italy Frees Catalan Separatist Leader From Jail. Here’s How the Case Has Gone.

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An Italian court released a former leader of Spain’s Catalonia region from jail on Friday, a day after his arrest on a warrant seeking his return to Spain for trial over a failed independence bid he led four years ago.

The court ordered “immediate freedom” for Carles Puigdemont and did not restrict his movements, meaning that he can leave the country. That left it unclear whether he would appear for further court proceedings on the request to send him back to Spain — and, if not, whether Italy would have any way to compel him.

Mr. Puigdemont is a member of the European Parliament, giving him a degree of legal immunity, and detaining him would have “compromised his right to travel freely to participate in the meetings of the European Parliament,” said the court’s decision, provided by his lawyer and verified by The New York Times.

If he is eventually returned to Spain, he faces trial on sedition charges for his leading role in an unsuccessful attempt to declare Catalonia an independent state in the fall of 2017, following a referendum that the Spanish government and courts had declared illegal.

Pablo Llarena, a Spanish Supreme Court judge, has pursued Mr. Puigdemont as a fugitive since he fled to Brussels in October 2017, and had issued a Europe-wide warrant for his arrest.

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Supporters of Catalan independence gathered in Barcelona’s main square in October 2017.Credit…Santi Palacios/Associated Press

In 2019, the Supreme Court sentenced other leading Catalan separatists to lengthy prison terms over their roles in that secession attempt. But in June, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pardoned them and they were released.

The separatist leadership of Catalonia has since pushed for a general amnesty that would include those, like Mr. Puigdemont, who left the country before they could be tried. The Supreme Court has maintained that he must first stand trial.

Italy’s judiciary will consider whether the Spanish charges justify handing over Mr. Puigdemont, who is a member of the European Parliament.

But there are also questions about whether Spain’s judiciary had suspended its longstanding arrest warrant before the former Catalan leader traveled to Sardinia. Lawyers defending Mr. Puigdemont insist that was the case. However one of those lawyers, Mr. Marras, said the Italian prosecutor concluded that the Spanish arrest warrant was still valid.

The Spanish government said on Friday that it was a matter for the courts in Italy and Spain to decide. Mr. Sanchez said that his government would respect judicial decisions, but added: “It is obvious that Puigdemont must face justice.”

Mr. Marras said that a panel of three Italian judges would decide whether to send him back to Spain.

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Protesters rallied in support of Mr. Puigdemont in Barcelona on Friday.Credit…Albert Gea/Reuters

Mr. Puigdemont was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, which afforded him immunity from prosecution within the European Union. But that Parliament stripped him of his immunity in March, a decision that was upheld by a European court in July.

But the Italian judge stated in court papers that his immunity “is still intact.”

Judicial authorities in Sassari, Sardinia, scheduled a hearing on Oct. 4 to assess whether to surrender Mr. Puigdemont to Spain, according to court documents. But by then, he might already have left the country.

Spain has repeatedly failed in its attempts to bring Mr. Puigdemont home for trial, both from Belgium, where he has lived since late 2017, and from Germany, where he was briefly detained in 2018 before a regional court ordered his release.

Mr. Puigdemont’s trip to Italy offered Spain’s judiciary a fresh opportunity to demand his return now that his parliamentary immunity has been stripped.

Italian judges will be considering lighter charges than those considered in the German hearing. Mr. Puigdemont was then accused of rebellion, a more serious charge than sedition, and one for which the German court said it did not see sufficient grounds.

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The Court of Appeals of Sassari on Friday in Sardinia, Italy, where Mr. Puigdemont is appearing after being arrested.Credit…Gianni Biddau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

If Italy considers surrendering Mr. Puigdemont, Martin Palladino, a Spanish professor of criminal law who specializes in extradition issues, said legal issues might not be the only factor.

“We cannot rule out that politics will influence this, one way or the other,” he said.

The unexpected arrest immediately strained relations between politicians in the Spanish capital, Madrid, and Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. It comes just a week after the Spanish prime minister made a long-delayed visit to Barcelona to resume talks with Pere Aragones, the leader of Catalonia, on ending the dispute inflamed by the independence bid.

From Brussels, Mr. Puigdemont has continued to wield significant influence over Catalan politics as the founder of a hard-line separatist party, Together for Catalonia. His seat in the European Parliament has also given him a platform from which to criticize Spain.

In Catalan elections in February, a left-wing pro-independence party, Esquerra Republicana, narrowly surpassed Mr. Puigdemont’s group as the largest separatist force.

After the vote, Esquerra’s candidate, Mr. Aragones, took office as the regional leader, promising to reduce tensions and renew political dialogue with Madrid. Earlier this month, Mr. Aragones tussled with Mr. Puigdemont’s party over who should sit at the negotiating table with the central government.

Speaking on Friday outside the Sassari prison, Antonello Peru, a regional councilor in Sardinia, told reporters that he had met with Mr. Puigdemont in his cell after the hearing and he told him that he intended to keep fighting for the independence of Catalonia.

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