ALGHERO: Exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont arrives for a convention in Alghero, on the island of Sardinia. - AFP

MADRID: Exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was back in Belgium yesterday after his arrest in Italy but will return at the weekend for a hearing over a Spanish extradition request, his lawyer said. "He is in Brussels and will return to Sardinia on Sunday," Gonzalo Boye said. A member of the European Parliament, Puigdemont was arrested in Sardinia on Thursday evening and spent the night in prison before a brief court hearing a day later.

The 58-year-old is wanted by Madrid on charges of sedition for leading a failed Catalan bid to declare independence from Spain in October 2017, fleeing to Belgium to avoid prosecution. Italian judges must now decide whether he should be extradited, with the court in the northern town of Sassari saying he was free to leave but must return for the hearing on October 4. Following his release late on Friday, Puigdemont said he would return to Brussels, where he has been based since late 2017. His lawyer in Sardinia has insisted there was no basis for his arrest, nor for his extradition.

Immunity lifted in March

Despite a ban by Madrid, Catalonia's separatist regional government tried to stage an independence referendum in 2017, which was marred by police violence. Several weeks later, they issued a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering a huge political crisis in Spain, and prompting Puigdemont and several others to flee abroad.

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. This is the third time Puigdemont has been arrested since he fled Spain, the first was when he arrived in Brussels, and the second was in Germany in March 2018, when it took the courts nearly four months to return him to full freedom.

Although he enjoyed immunity for a time after being elected an MEP in 2019, it was lifted by the European Parliament in March in a decision upheld in July by the EU's General Court. The decision also affects former Catalan regional ministers Toni Comin and Clara Ponsati, both of whom are wanted by Spain. However, they are appealing against the European Parliament's decision and a final ruling by the EU court has yet to be made. - AFP