Spanish judge withdraws arrest warrant for Catalan leaders

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MADRID (AP) — A Spanish judge on Tuesday withdrew international arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former Cabinet who have been fighting extradition from Belgium.

A Supreme Court spokesman said that the five could still be arrested if they go back to Spain, however, because they are still being sought at home for possible crimes related to the independence bid in northeastern Catalonia.

In a surprise move, Supreme Court magistrate Pablo Llarena said on Tuesday that individual warrants don't apply anymore because the alleged crimes were a group action, according to new evidence.

He also said that the probed politicians have shown their "intention to return to Spain" in order to run for regional elections in Catalonia.

But Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer, Paul Bekaert, said that the Catalan separatist leader wasn't planning an immediate return.

"For the moment he stays in Belgium," Bekaert told VTM network.

A spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecution's office said that Belgian authorities will call for an extra session on the extradition court case so the proceedings can be stopped.

But with the warrant withdrawal official, Puigdemont is fully free in his movements and no longer bound to respect the initial restrictions from the court case, which included the provision that he had to stay in Belgium, spokeswoman Ine Van Wymersch said.

"The restrictions that were set up by the Brussels investigating judge are no longer in effect. So here in Belgium. Mr. Puigdemont and his four ministers are free to leave the country if they want," Van Wymersch said.

The five Catalans are facing rebellion, sedition and embezzlement among other charges for their roles last month in staging an illegal independence referendum that led to an independence declaration in the region's parliament.

The crimes are punishable in Spain with decades in prison.

Spanish, European and international arrest warrants for the five who fled to Belgium were issued on Nov. 3, after members of Puigdemont's government who remained in Spain were jailed on provisional charges.

The Spanish court spokesman said that the judge's decision applies to both European and international warrants, not to the domestic ones. He asked not to be named, citing internal court rules.

Two ex-Cabinet members, including former Vice President Oriol Junqueras, and two separatist activists remain in custody.

Tuesday's decision seemed to leave up in the air the battle in Brussels over extradition for the five Catalan separatist politicians. A decision had been announced for Dec. 14, but the Belgian prosecutor's office said it was assessing the new situation.

The Belgian judge could have chosen to rule against the Spanish request or agreed to send the five back as requested, or reduced the number of crimes that Spain could try them for.

That possibility was mentioned by the Supreme Court judge in a nine-page document issued on Tuesday to withdraw the warrants. Responsibility should be shared among all the defendants, Llarena said in the document, adding that diminished charges would mean a "distortion" for those already facing the probe in Spain.

Puigdemont is leading his party's campaign for the Dec. 21 election called by Spain's government in an attempt to find a democratic fix to the nation's worst institutional crisis in nearly four decades.

Campaigning officially began on Tuesday and early polls are predicting a close race between the parties for and against independence, foreshadowing a scenario of difficult post-electoral deals to end the deadlock.


Raf Casert reported from Brussels.

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