Sacked Catalan leader turns himself in to Belgian police

Sacked Catalan leader turns himself in to Belgian police

Catalonia's sacked separatist leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his former ministers turned themselves in to Belgian police on Sunday after Spain issued a warrant for their arrest.

The five, who face accusations of rebellion and sedition in Spain, are due to appear later Sunday before a judge who will decide within 24 hours whether to detain or release them.

It is the latest dramatic development in the crisis unleashed by the Catalan separatists' push to break away from Spain that sent shockwaves across Europe.

Puigdemont and his allies fled to Belgium last Monday after Spain sacked the Catalan executive and imposed direct rule on the once semi-autonomous region following the declaration of independence by the parliament there last month.

"They were taken into custody at 9:17 am (0817 GMT)," said Gilles Dejemeppe, a spokesman for Belgian prosecutors.

Only the five, their lawyer and an interpreter will be present at Sunday's hearing.

Puigdemont wrote on Twitter on Saturday that he and his colleagues - Meritxell Serret, Antoni Comin, Lluis Puig and Clara Ponsati - would "cooperate" with the Belgian authorities.

Spain issued European arrest warrants on Friday after Puigdemont and his allies ignored a summons to appear before a judge on allegations linked to the move to declare Catalonia an independent republic.

The judge in Madrid had on Thursday put Puigdemont's deputy and seven other deposed regional ministers behind bars because of a risk they would flee.

Puigdemont, 54, insists that Catalonia earned the right to declare independence following a banned referendum last month and has described his detained colleagues as "political prisoners".

He said he was not convinced by guarantees of a fair trial back home, denouncing the "enormous pressure and political influence on judicial power in Spain".

The judge could "refuse to hand over Puigdemont if there is a proven serious risk to his fundamental rights," said Anne Weyembergh, president of the Institute of European Studies of the Free University of Brussels.

She said the court would need to see evidence of criminal offences before executing the warrant.

But cases of refusal are rare, according to several lawyers interviewed by AFP.

Puidgemont, who still describes himself as Catalan "president," has also said he is willing to run as a candidate in the December 21 snap regional election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to "restore normality" to Catalonia.

Related reports, Page 13

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