By GLORIA CALVI, COLLEEN BARRY and JOSEPH WILSON
SASSARI, Sardinia (AP) — Catalonia’s former separatist leader Carles Puigdemont faced a hearing Monday on the Italian island of Sardinia to decide whether to extradite him to Spain, where he is accused of sedition.
Puigdemont was arrested Sept. 23 in Sardinia, where he had arrived from his home in Belgium to attend a Catalan cultural festival at the invitation of a Sardinian separatist movement. He was freed by a judge a day later pending Monday’s extradition hearing.
Puigdemont and fellow separatists Clara Ponsatí and Toni Comín had their immunity as European Parliament members lifted earlier this year as requested by Spain after the European Union’s general court said that they didn’t demonstrate they were at risk of being arrested.
Ponsatí and Comín were among a contingent of high-profile separatists who traveled to Sardinia to show their support for Puigdemont on Monday, triggering a request sent by a Spanish judge to Italy to have them detained as well. There was no immediate indication they had been taken into custody.
Prosecutors have asked the judge to suspend Puigdemont’s extradition proceedings. A judge doesn’t have to accept the prosecutor’s request, but it does signal that there is not a desire to extradite him to Spain.
A group of about 20 supporters rallied outside the courthouse as Puigdemont arrived for the hearing accompanied by his lawyer, Gonzalo Boye. Some members of the crowd shouted “freedom!”
Puigdemont, 58, has successfully avoided extradition since taking up residence in Waterloo, Belgium, after leading an illegal 2017 secession attempt by the relatively wealthy Catalonia region in Spain’s northeast.
After a Belgian court declined to send him back in 2017, the following year he was arrested in Germany but a court there also refused to extradite him.
Several of his cohorts who stayed in Barcelona were arrested and found guilty of sedition and the misuse of public funds.
In an attempt to defuse the political crisis he inherited from his conservative predecessor, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned nine imprisoned separatist leaders in June. Puigdemont, and others like him who fled, couldn’t benefit from the act of grace since they have yet to face justice.
The detention of Puigdemont two weeks ago comes with the former regional president struggling to retain his preeminent role in the Catalonia separatist movement, which has surged in popularity over the past two decades.
Puigdemont’s party has lost the regional presidency of Catalonia and is now the minor member of a coalition led by a separatist rival which is leading talks with Sánchez’s government to resolve the festering crisis. Puigdemont’s party isn’t participating in the head-to-head negotiations which its leaders have criticized as a distraction from rebuilding strength for another unilateral secession bid.
Despite already enjoying a good degree of self-rule, polls and election results show that roughly half of Catalans want to form a new state. The other half wants to remain in Spain given the centuries of cultural and family ties linking Catalonia with the rest of the country.
The majority of Spaniards are against the loss of Catalonia, which for decades has represented a land of opportunity for those who moved there from poorer regions.
Sardinia has historic and cultural ties with Catalonia that date back to the 14th century.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan, and Joseph Wilson from Barcelona, Spain.
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