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Catalan separatist chief wanted for rebellion and sedition detained in Italy

Carles Puigdemont is wanted by Madrid for his role orchestrating a 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia. (Hatim Kaghat/AFP/Getty Images)
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Carles Puigdemont, the fugitive former leader of Catalonia, was arrested by Italian police Thursday at an airport in Sardinia, marking the latest chapter in a nearly four-year-long quest by Spain to extradite one of the world’s most prominent secessionists.

The ex-Catalan regional president has lived in Belgium since he fled his homeland in 2017, after orchestrating a referendum that asked Catalans to decide whether the region should secede from Spain. Madrid declared the vote illegal and arrested nine of his associates, while Puigdemont, who is wanted on rebellion and sedition charges that carry a prison sentence of up to 30 years, escaped.

Puigdemont, who is a member of the European Parliament, was going to Sardinia to meet with local leaders and attend an annual festival celebrating Catalan culture, his representatives said. The Associated Press had reported that he was visiting the Mediterranean island on the invitation of a Sardinian independence group, citing local media.

On Thursday, he posted a short statement on Twitter inviting residents of the island to read a Sardinian-language version of a unilateral declaration of independence passed by the Catalan legislature.

Puigdemont, who has said that he is a victim of political persecution by Madrid, will face an Italian judge on Friday. He has successfully resisted attempts by European law enforcement to extradite him to Spain. In 2018, he was arrested by German authorities as he crossed the Danish-German border on his way to Belgium. German authorities released him after a local court ruled that he could not be extradited to Spain on the charge of rebellion.

When Puigdemont was detained by Germany in 2018, tens of thousands of pro-independence Catalans gathered in the streets to protest, according to the Associated Press. A demonstration outside the Italian consulate in Barcelona has been called for Friday morning, reported El País, the Spanish newspaper.

Puigdemont was traveling to Sardinia in his capacity as a lawmaker, his lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, said on Twitter, adding that the arrest warrant against his client had been suspended. Although European Parliament legislators enjoy limited immunity from detention, the E.U. assembly had stripped Puigdemont of that privilege in March.

The Spanish government said in a statement that Puigdemont should “submit to the action of justice like any other citizen.” The Justice Ministry in Madrid didn’t immediately return further requests for comment.

Spanish prime minister says Catalan separatists convicted of sedition will be pardoned

The Council for the Catalan Republic, Puigdemont’s political organization, released a statement calling his arrest unlawful and decrying the tactics of the government in Madrid. “The road to the Republic is, more than ever, irreversible,” it said.

Puigdemont was the leader of Catalonia, a northeastern Spanish region that contains Barcelona, the country’s second-largest urban center. He played a leading role in the 2017 referendum, in which 90 percent of people who voted came out in favor of independence.

The referendum, which was not authorized by Madrid, led to the national government imposing direct rule for over six months. Spanish officials and courts have consistently rejected the legitimacy of that poll, which about 60 percent of eligible voters did not participate in, The Washington Post reported.

The chaotic referendum was interrupted by police raiding polling stations, at times attacking citizens with rubber truncheons and pulling them by their hair, according to video footage. It also triggered protests by Catalans who wanted to stay within Spain.

In June, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez agreed to pardon the nine secessionists who were arrested after the referendum, including Puigdemont’s then-deputy, Oriol Junqueras, who had been sentenced to a 13-year prison term.

Puigdemont has maintained a harder line against Madrid: “Let no one try to say that with pardons the political problem is solved,” he said at that time.

Read more:

How Catalonia’s push for independence has scrambled Spanish politics

Spain restarts talks to resolve Catalan secession crisis

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