Carles Puigdemont, Catalan Separatist, Dodges Spain’s Bid to Prosecute Him

Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan separatist wanted in Spain for leading a failed breakaway movement in his region four years ago, left Italy on Monday, days after his brief detention and release by Italian authorities.

The arrest and exit of Mr. Puigdemont raised and then dashed the hopes of Spanish prosecutors, who once again watched another European country set him free. Italian authorities acted on a European arrest warrant at the behest of Spain, which wants to try Mr. Puigdemont on sedition charges after he led an unsuccessful attempt to establish an independent Catalonia.

“He left this morning for Brussels,” said Mr. Puigdemont’s lawyer, Agostinangelo Marras. Mr. Puigdemont’s office in Brussels confirmed his departure from Italy and said he would attend a meeting in Brussels on Monday afternoon.

Mr. Puigdemont, a member of the European Parliament, has been living in Brussels in freedom. The Belgian government has refused to send him back to Spain for trial, and a German court let him go in 2018 after a brief detention there.

An Italian court is scheduled to start considering next week whether to act on the warrant for his arrest and send Mr. Puigdemont to Spain to face criminal charges. Despite his departure from the country, his lawyer said that if required, he would return to Italy for the court decision.

The Italian police arrested Mr. Puigdemont on Thursday as he landed at the airport to attend a Catalan folk festival on the island of Sardinia and to meet pro-independence leaders there. But on Friday, an Italian court ordered his release, ruling that Mr. Puigdemont’s status as a member of the European Parliament gave him the right to leave the country to participate in meetings in Brussels.

On Friday afternoon, Mr. Puigdemont posted a picture of himself on Twitter leaving prison in the city of Sassari.

“Spain never misses an opportunity to embarrass itself,” he wrote, adding the hashtag #NoSurrender.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain said on Friday that his government would respect the judicial decisions, but added: “It is obvious that Puigdemont must face justice.”

Spain has repeatedly issued international warrants in an attempt to prosecute Mr. Puigdemont. But the latest effort came at a critical moment, just over a week after Mr. Sánchez visited Barcelona, the regional capital of Catalonia, to start a fresh round of negotiations with separatist politicians aimed at ending a territorial conflict that has been Spain’s biggest political headache for the past decade.

Italian legal experts said that if Mr. Puigdemont did not return to Italy for the hearing next week, his absence would almost certainly lead the judge to drop the proceedings.

“The court hearings could technically also continue,” said Stefano Maffei, a law professor specializing in extraditions and European arrest warrants at the University of Parma. “But for the European arrest warrant to be applicable, the person wanted has to be in the country.”

Experts said it was unlikely that Italian judicial authorities would surrender Mr. Puigdemont because the charges he is facing in Spain could be considered to be politically motivated, and because his legal status is still a matter of debate.

The Italian court stated that Mr. Puigdemont’s immunity across Europe, granted by his election to the European Parliament in 2019, was still intact. In March, the same European Parliament stripped him of his immunity, as requested by Spanish authorities, for the alleged offense of sedition.

A European court in July rejected Mr. Puigdemont’s request to have his immunity restored, but said he was still free to travel to attend meetings of the Parliament.

Lawyers defending Mr. Puigdemont say that Spain’s arrest warrant had been suspended before his trip to Italy, but the Italian judges ruled that it was still valid.

Italy, like most Western European countries, has legislation that protects foreigners on its territory who would face charges with political overtones in their home countries, like those Mr. Puigdemont faces. A similar principle in France allowed a number of Italian terrorists to live freely there for decades, only to be arrested earlier this year. None of them has returned to Italy yet.

From Brussels, Mr. Puigdemont has remained highly influential in Catalan politics.

Catalan leaders who supported the 2017 independence bid and remained in Spain to face trial were convicted and given long prison sentences, but Mr. Sánchez pardoned them. His government has said there can be no amnesty for those like Mr. Puigdemont, who fled the country, until they have been tried.

Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid.

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