Italy court suspends ex-Catalan leader case pending EU ruling

Sassari (Italy) (AFP) –


An Italian court on Monday suspended proceedings against exiled ex-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who was arrested in Sardinia on a Spanish extradition warrant, pending the outcome of European rulings, his lawyer said.

The 58-year-old was briefly detained on the island on September 23 on a European warrant issued by Madrid over his role in Catalonia's failed independence bid in 2017.

But his lawyers insist he has immunity as a member of the European Parliament. This immunity was lifted earlier this year, but Puigdemont is appealing.

The court in Sassari "has suspended the case pending the decision on two preliminary questions before the European court", namely that of Puigdemont's immunity and the extradition request, his Italian lawyer Agostinangelo Marras said after a hearing Monday.

Puigdemont was greeted by supporters shouting "Freedom! Freedom!" and waving Catalan independence flags outside the court, where he was accompanied by two former Catalan regional ministers, Toni Comin and Clara Ponsati, who are also wanted by Spain.

Puigdemont led efforts by Catalonia's separatist regional government to stage an independence referendum in October 2017 despite a ban by Madrid. The vote was marred by police violence.

Several weeks later, the Catalan administration issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering a political crisis that prompted Puigdemont and several others to flee.

Those who stayed behind were arrested and put on trial, with nine of them jailed for between nine and 13 years.

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

- 'No reason' for detention -

Puigdemont's arrest last month, on a trip as MEP to a cultural festival in the town of Alghero -- a Catalan enclave in Sardinia -- was his third since fleeing Spain.

The first was when he arrived in Brussels and the second was in Germany in March 2018, when the courts took nearly four months to return him to full freedom.

Puigdemont enjoyed immunity for a time after being elected an MEP in 2019, but that was lifted by the European Parliament in March in a decision upheld in July by the EU's General Court.

However, he, Comin and Ponsati are appealing the European Parliament's decision. A final ruling by the EU court remains pending.

On Friday, Puigdemont's legal team said he was seeking an emergency injunction with the EU General Court to retain his immunity.

Both Comin and Ponsati were in Sassari on Monday -- arriving in Italy without being arrested -- in a show of support for Puigdemont.

"We have immunity as MEPs. We have always said that there was no reason for the detention of president Puigdemont," Comin told AFP.

His arrest, which sparked protests in the Catalan capital Barcelona, came barely a week after the left-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the regional Catalan authorities resumed negotiations to find a solution to Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Relations have thawed significantly since Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist from the left-wing ERC, was elected as Catalan leader in May, taking the helm of the region's separatist-dominated coalition.