Belgian judge grants conditional freedom to Catalan Five

A Belgian judge ruled that the five central leaders including Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont who fled to Belgium before surrendering themselves to authorities have been granted conditional freedom pending their participation in the upcoming court proceedings. 

Manu Fernandez/AP
Protesters holding signs reading "Freedom for the Political Prisoners" gathered in Barcelona, Spain to protest a judge's decision to jail members of Barcelona's government after a declaration of independence.

Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four close separatist allies regained their freedom at the end of a tumultuous Sunday that started when they surrendered in Brussels to face possible extradition to Spain for allegedly plotting a rebellion.

But a Brussels investigative judge quickly ruled there was no reason to put the five politicians behind bars and released them on condition they stay in Belgium and attend their court sessions within two weeks.

Hours after the former Catalan regional president and four ex-ministers turned themselves in to Belgian authorities, Mr. Puigdemont's party put him forward as its leader for an upcoming regional election called by the Spanish government – meaning he could end up vocally heading a campaign from Brussels while he fights a forced return to Spain.

The decision was rife with implications for Spain and political consequences for Catalonia, the restive Spanish region fighting Madrid for independence.

The five Catalan politicians who fled to Belgium after Spanish authorities removed them from office Oct. 28 were taken into custody Sunday on European arrest warrants issued after they failed to show up in Madrid last week for questioning.

In Belgium, even the prosecutor didn't think it was necessary to detain the five after Puigdemont made it amply clear he would fully cooperate with Belgian authorities.

"The request made this afternoon by the Brussels' Prosecutor's Office for the provisional release of all persons sought has been granted by the investigative judge," a statement from the prosecutor's office said.

The office said the whole extradition process could take more than 60 days, well past the Dec. 21 date set for the regional election in Catalonia.

Puigdemont and the four ex-ministers left for Belgium last week as the Spanish government, seeking to quash Catalan separatists' escalating steps to secede, applied constitutional authority to take over running the region.

The officials said they wanted to make their voices heard in the heart of the European Union and have refused to return to Spain, maintaining they could not get fair trials there.

Nine other deposed Catalan Cabinet members heeded a Spanish judge's summons for questioning in Madrid on Thursday. After questioning them, the judge ordered eight of them to jail without bail while her investigation continues. The ninth spent a night behind bars before posting bail and being released.

Whether in Brussels or Barcelona, Puigdemont is at the heart of political jockeying for position to start a campaign that promises to be as bitter as it is decisive to Spain's worst institutional crisis in nearly four decades.

While parties opposed to breaking away from Spain try to rally support to win back control of Catalonia's regional parliament, pro-secession parties are debating whether or not to form one grand coalition for the upcoming ballot.

Another former president of the region, Artur Mas, told Catalan public television on Sunday that he backed a fusion of parties for the December vote. But Mr. Mas said the main goals of secession supporters must be recovering self-rule and the release of the jailed separatists.

"If we add the issue of independence, we won't get as many people to support us," said Mas, who was the first Catalan leader to harness the political momentum for secession.

An opinion poll published by Barcelona's La Vanguardia newspaper on Sunday forecast a tight election between parties for and against Catalonia ending the region's century-old ties to the rest of Spain.

The poll predicts that pro-secession parties would win between 66 to 69 seats, less than the 72 seats they won two years ago. Sixty-eight seats are needed for a majority.

Puigdemont and his fellow separatists claimed that a referendum on secession held on Oct. 1 gave them a mandate for independence, even though it had been prohibited by the nation's highest court and only 43 percent of the electorate took part in the vote, which failed to meet international standards and was disrupted by violent police raids.

Catalonia's Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Oct. 27. The next day, Spain's central government used the extraordinary constitutional powers to fire Catalonia's government, take charge of its administrations, dissolve its parliament and call the December election.

Hundreds of pro-secession Catalans gathered in towns across the region on Sunday.

"We want to send a message to Europe that even if our president is still in Brussels and all our government now is in Madrid jailed, that the independence movement still isn't finished," protester Adria Ballester said in Barcelona.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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