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Madrid says Catalan separatist leader must face Spanish courts

People demonstrate in support of former Catalan government head Carles Puigdemont, who has been arrested in Sardinia on Thursday, in front of the European Parliament, in Brussels, Belgium September 24, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Joan Faus and Jordi Rubio

BARCELONA/ROME, Sept 24 (Reuters) - The Spanish government demanded Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont be extradited to face sedition charges in Spain on Friday after he was detained by Italian police in Sardinia.

The former president of Spain's Catalonia region was due to appear in a court of appeal in the Sardinian city of Sassari later on Friday.

Agostinangelo Marras, a lawyer for Puigdemont in Sardinia, told Italian news agency ANSA that the court would rule whether to confirm his arrest or release him, but would not decide at Friday's hearing whether he should be extradited.

Puigdemont's arrest is likely to stir emotions among his supporters, potentially complicating a new attempt by the Spanish government to hold talks with Catalonia's separatist government on the region's future.

Police cordoned off some streets in the Catalan capital Barcelona after a few hundred protesters gathered in front of the Italian consulate, waving Catalan separatist flags and chanting "Puigdemont is our president" and "Free Puigdemont."

Puigdemont, 58, has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since late 2017 after Spain accused him of helping to organise a 2017 independence referendum deemed illegal by Spanish courts.

He has served as a member of the European Parliament since 2019, but was detained by Italian border police at Alghero airport as he arrived in Sardinia from Brussels to attend a cultural event on Thursday evening.

"Mr Puigdemont must submit to the action of the courts, exactly like any other citizen," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's office said in a statement.

If extradited, Puigdemont is likely to face the same Supreme Court trial that sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to lengthy prison terms in 2019 for their role in the 2017 attempt to break away from Spain.

The Spanish government pardoned them in June but said Puigdemont still had to face justice in Spain.

ARREST WARRANT

Puigdemont was subject to a European arrest warrant issued by Spain and the European Parliament stripped him of immunity in March.

In 2018, Puigdemont was arrested in Germany but avoided extradition. Belgium has refused all Spain's extradition requests to date and he travelled to Paris last week without apparent difficulties.

Paul Bekaert, a lawyer for Puigdemont in Belgium, told Reuters he should not have been arrested in Italy. According to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), he should be free until the court resolves an appeal against the European Parliament's decision to remove Puigdemont's immunity, he said.

"I am surprised (he was arrested) because there is the obligation of Spain in Luxembourg not to continue with the European (arrest) warrant. I think there is a misunderstanding. If Spain doesn't respect that obligation, there will be problems," he said.

The ECJ declined immediate comment on the arrest

Carme Segura, a 60-year--old protester in Barcelona, said: "This detention is an injustice because president Puigdemont is a democratically elected person."

Jordi Sanchez, secretary general of Puigdemont's party and one of the pardoned separatists, told local channel TV3 that the Spanish government's statement was incoherent with its goal of seeking dialogue and reconciliation with Catalonia.

The arrest took place a week after Sanchez relaunched talks with Catalonia's separatist government, where Puigdemont's party Junts is part of the ruling coalition. The talks are aimed at fostering reconciliation with the northeastern region after its failed independence bid in 2017.

It also comes at a complicated time when the central government is kicking off the 2022 budget process and needs the backing of Catalan parties to approve it.

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