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Defiant Catalan ex-leader released from German prison

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont gives a press statement after he was released on bail from the prison in Neumuenster, northern Germany, Friday, April 6, 2018. (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has walked out of a German prison after posting 75,000 euros (£65,000) bail, demanding that Spanish authorities release fellow separatists and open a dialogue on his region's future.

Mr Puigdemont was detained by German police on March 25 after crossing the border from Denmark.

Spain is seeking his extradition for rebellion and misuse of public funds in organising an unauthorised referendum last year on Catalonia's independence from Spain.

The state court in Schleswig said the charge of rebellion would not warrant extradition because the equivalent German law presumes the use or threat of force sufficient to bend the will of authorities.

He can still be extradited on misuse of funds charges.

A smiling Mr 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 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," Mr 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".

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 cannot leave Germany without prosecutors' agreement.

Under European rules, a decision on extradition should happen within 60 days of arrest.

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

It 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 Mr Puigdemont and his supporters since October's banned referendum.

In Madrid, the Spanish government denied that it is hounding Mr Puigdemont. Spokesman Iñigo Mendez de Vigo said he "is not a victim of political persecution, he's a fugitive from justice".

Mr Mendez de Vigo told a regular weekly news conference that the government respects Spanish and German court decisions and does not interfere in their rulings.

He said the Spanish government "met its obligations" by imposing direct rule on Catalonia after Mr Puigdemont and other separatists organised the independence referendum last year.

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

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