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Catalonia’s Puigdemont to be brought before judge in Germany

A van with tinted windows which is believed to transport Carles Puigdemont, the fugitive ex-leader of Catalonia and ardent separatist, arrives at a prison in Neumuenster, northern Germany, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (Carsten Rehder / Associated Press)
A van with tinted windows which is believed to transport Carles Puigdemont, the fugitive ex-leader of Catalonia and ardent separatist, arrives at a prison in Neumuenster, northern Germany, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (Carsten Rehder / Associated Press)
By Geir Moulson and Volkmar Kienoel Associated Press

NEUMUENSTER, Germany – Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, was to be brought before a court in Germany on Monday for an initial hearing on whether he stays in custody, kicking off an extradition process that could take weeks.

The closed-doors hearing comes amid heightened tensions in the Spanish region following Puigdemont’s arrest on a European warrant Sunday at a highway rest area south of the German-Danish border. Tens of thousands protested late Sunday in Barcelona and other Catalan towns, and some demonstrators clashed with riot police.

Spanish authorities accuse Puigdemont, 55, of rebellion and misuse of public funds in organizing an unauthorized referendum on independence for Catalonia.

Prosecutors in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein wouldn’t say where Monday’s hearing would take place, and the timing also wasn’t clear. The hearing will entail the court formally establishing Puigdemont’s identity and determining whether he is kept in custody on a preliminary basis, said Wiebke Hoffelner, a spokeswoman for prosecutors.

The state court in Schleswig will decide at a later date whether to put Puigdemont in formal pre-extradition custody on the basis of documents provided by Spain. German government officials have stressed that the case is a matter for the judicial system, but declined to say Monday whether the government could ultimately overrule a court decision.

European rules call for a final decision on extradition within 60 days of the suspect’s arrest, though a 30-day extension is possible, Justice Ministry spokeswoman Stephanie Krueger said.

German news agency dpa said Puigdemont was taken to a prison in the town of Neumuenster on Sunday.

Spain was plunged into its worst political crisis in four decades when Puigdemont’s government flouted a court ban and held an ad-hoc referendum on independence for the northeastern region in October.

The Catalan parliament’s subsequent declaration of independence received no international recognition and provoked a takeover of the regional government by Spanish authorities.

Spain originally asked for Puigdemont’s extradition from Belgium after he fled there in October, but later withdrew the request until Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena concluded his investigation last week.

In the meantime, Puigdemont was free to make trips to Denmark, Switzerland and Finland, in an effort to gain international support for the secessionist movement.

The international arrest warrant for Puigdemont was reactivated on Friday, when he was visiting Finland. Spain has also issued five warrants for other separatists who fled the country.

It wasn’t immediately clear why Puigdemont wasn’t arrested earlier in his trip from Finland to Belgium.

However, authorities examining a European arrest warrant need to check whether the offense a suspect is accused of committing is equivalent to a criminal offense in the country where he was arrested.

Germany’s criminal code – unlike Belgium’s – includes an offense that appears to be comparable to rebellion, the main accusation against Puigdemont. It calls for prison sentences for anyone who “undertakes, by force or through threat of force” to undermine the existence of the republic or change the constitutional order.

Puigdemont and other Catalan separatists argue that their movement has been entirely peaceful. Separatists condemned Sunday’s street violence in Catalonia that led to 100 people, including 23 police agents, being treated for minor injuries.

German Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth said Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office was informed Friday about the arrest warrant and, in parallel, the office’s liaison officer in Madrid was informed that Puigdemont might enter the country.

Schleswig-Holstein’s state interior minister, Hans-Joachim Grote, told NDR television that four other people who were in the car with Puigdemont were taken to a police station and then released. He didn’t identify them.

Dimroth said that, in “abstract terms,” Puigdemont could seek asylum in Germany because anyone can file such a request, but added that he couldn’t say anything about the likelihood of him being granted asylum or whether Puigdemont had made any such request.

Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer, Paul Bekaert, argued on VRT television that there was “flagrant abuse by Spain of the European arrest warrant for political purpose, which is totally illegal.”

However, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin that “Spain is a democratic state of law.”

“The German government remains convinced that this Catalonia conflict must be resolved within the Spanish legal and constitutional order,” he said, noting Berlin’s support for the “clear position” of the Spanish government in recent months.

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