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Catalonia’s defiant ex-leader freed on bail from German jail

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont smiles when giving a news statement after he was released on bail from the prison in Neumuenster, northern Germany, Friday, April 6, 2018. (Carsten Rehder / Associated Press)
Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont smiles when giving a news statement after he was released on bail from the prison in Neumuenster, northern Germany, Friday, April 6, 2018. (Carsten Rehder / Associated Press)
By Pietro Decristofaro and Geir Moulson Associated Press

NEUMUENSTER, Germany (AP) – Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont walked out of a German prison Friday after posting $92,000 bail, demanding that Spanish authorities release fellow Catalan separatists and open a dialogue on his region’s future.

Puigdemont was detained by police in northern Germany on March 25 after crossing the border from Denmark. Spain is seeking his extradition for rebellion and misuse of public funds in organizing an unauthorized referendum last year on Catalonia’s independence from Spain.

The state court in Schleswig said Thursday that the charge of rebellion wouldn’t warrant extradition because the equivalent German law presumes the use or threat of force sufficient to bend the will of authorities. Puigdemont can still be extradited on the less serious charge of misuse of funds.

A smiling Puigdemont emerged into the sunshine from the prison in Neumuenster, where he has been held for nearly two weeks, thanking staff “for their professionality and for their respect” and the inmates for “their solidarity and help for me to adapt quickly to the situation.”

He also sent a defiant message to Spanish authorities.

“I call for the immediate release for all of my colleagues still in Spanish prisons,” he said, speaking in English. “It’s a shame for Europe to still have political prisoners.”

“The time for dialogue has arrived,” he declared, arguing that years of Catalan demands for dialogue have met with only a “violent and repressive response.”

“Now, seeing the fall of that response, it’s time to do politics,” Puigdemont added. He said there are no excuses for the Spanish authorities to avoid “a political dialogue with the Catalan political leaders in order to find a political solution of our demands, not by criminal law.”

He later wrote on Twitter: “I have left the prison and am heading to Berlin.”

Puigdemont can move freely in Germany pending a decision on his extradition, though he must report to police once a week and inform prosecutors of any change in residence. He can’t leave Germany without prosecutors’ agreement.

Under European rules, a decision on extradition should happen within 60 days of arrest. But a spokeswoman for the Schleswig court, Frauke Holmer, noted that “each case is different.”

Prosecutors now have to decide whether to file a formal request for the court to rule on whether Puigdemont can be extradited. That is expected to take at least several days.

The German court’s decision to release Puigdemont on bail is a setback for the Spanish judiciary’s efforts to crack down on the separatist movement.

A Spanish Supreme Court spokeswoman said the magistrate investigating the Catalan separatists’ secession attempt is considering consulting the European Court of Justice on whether the German court followed EU procedures for extradition.

The Spanish Public Prosecutor’s Office also said it’s mulling to seek action in the ECJ to “protect and defend the European judicial order” regarding arrest warrants within the bloc.

Puigdemont’s release is also an embarrassing blow for Spain’s conservative government, which has insisted the dispute over Catalan separatism is a legal issue, not a political one, and has refused to be drawn into negotiations with the former Catalan president and his supporters since October’s banned referendum.

Puigdemont’s lawyer, Wolfgang Schomburg, said he was confident of convincing the court not to allow his client’s extradition on the misuse of funds charges.

In Madrid, the Spanish government denied that it is hounding Puigdemont. Government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said he “is not a victim of political persecution, he’s a fugitive from justice.”

Mendez de Vigo told reporters that the government respects Spanish and German court decisions and doesn’t interfere in their rulings.

He says the Spanish government “met its obligations” by imposing direct rule on Catalonia after Puigdemont and other separatists organized the independence referendum last year.

Spain’s Supreme Court has charged 14 Catalan separatists, including Puigdemont, with rebellion, which carries a sentence of up to 30 years. Misuse of funds carries a sentence of up to eight years.

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