Catalan ex-leader Puigdemont pledges return to Sardinia for hearing

Alghero (Italy) (AFP) –


Exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont said he would return to Belgium on Monday, but promised to come back to Italy for a court hearing there on Spain's request for his extradition.

The declaration was the latest twist in a long-running political saga that began in October 2017 when a referendum was staged by Catalonia's separatist regional government despite a ban by Madrid and the process was marred by police violence.

Puigdemont, who had been arrested in Italy at Spain's request over an independence referendum that Madrid ruled illegal, was speaking a day after he was allowed to walk free from prison pending the October 4 extradition hearing.

"I plan to return to Brussels on Monday because there is a meeting of the foreign trade committee, of which I am a member," the EU lawmaker told journalists in the Sardinian village of Algero, where he was due to attend Adifolk, a Catalan cultural festival.

"On October 4, I am summoned to Sassari court (in northern Sardinia).

"I will in fact attend, because every time I have been summoned by the courts, I have presented myself," he added.

According to his Italian lawyer Agostinangelo Marras, a decision on his client's extradition would likely take "weeks."

The Italian government for its part has said it will not get involved in Puigdemont's case.

In the meantime, Puigdemont insisted he would continue to travel throughout Europe in defiance of Madrid.

- 'I am free' -

"We shall never give in and I shall continue to travel in Europe," he told reporters, declaring that his release indicated he was in the right in his defence of Catalan rights.

"I am used to being persecuted by Spain but things always end up the same way -- I am free," he told AFP.

Puigdemont, a member of the European Parliament who fled Spain following the 2017 vote, had left jail in the Sardinian town of Sassari on Friday to cheers from supporters outside.

The 58-year-old separatist leader had spent the night there after being taken into custody the day before, but his lawyer said he had been told he was free to leave.

Spanish justice accuses Puigdemont of sedition and embezzlement of public funds on connection with his time in charge of Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region of Spain.

Puigdemont on Saturday met with Catalan regional president Pere Aragones, who had come to Sardinia to support him in his battle against extradition to Spain
Puigdemont on Saturday met with Catalan regional president Pere Aragones, who had come to Sardinia to support him in his battle against extradition to Spain MIGUEL MEDINA AFP

His arrest in Sardinia drew a sharp rebuke from the Catalan government, with regional leader Pere Aragones on Friday demanding Puigdemont's "immediate release" and travelling to the island, where the pair met Saturday.

The arrest also sparked anger in Catalonia as hundreds of pro-independence supporters demonstrated Friday evening outside the Italian consulate in Barcelona.

His detention came at a sensitive time, nine days after the left-leaning Spanish government and regional Catalan authorities resumed negotiations to find a solution to Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Several weeks after the October 2017 referendum, the separatists issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering a huge political crisis with Spain during which Puigdemont and several others fled abroad.

The legal saga of Carles Puigdemont
The legal saga of Carles Puigdemont AFP

Madrid prosecuted the Catalan separatist leaders that stayed behind, handing nine of them long jail terms.

Although they were all pardoned earlier this year, Madrid still wants Puigdemont and several others to face justice over the secession bid.

In March, the European Parliament rescinded immunity for Puigdemont and two other pro-independence MEPs, a decision upheld in July by the EU's General Court.

However, the European Parliament's decision is being appealed pending a final ruling by the EU court.