Puigdemont urges dialogue with Madrid after leaving German jail


Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont called for immediate "political dialogue" with Madrid to resolve the row over the region's independence bid as he left a German jail on Friday.

The 55-year-old smiled and waved at supporters as he walked out of Neumuenster prison in northern Germany after posting a 75,000-euro ($92,000) bail, a day after judges rejected Spain's request to extradite him on a rebellion charge.

The German judges are still mulling however whether to extradite him on a lesser charge of corruption.

"The time for dialogue has arrived," Puigdemont told reporters outside the prison, saying that Catalonian demands for talks had for years "only received a violent and repressive response".

There is "no excuse" for the Spanish authorities not to start "a political dialogue with the Catalan political leaders", he added.

He also called for "the immediate release" of fellow Catalan separatists detained in the clash with Madrid over the wealthy northeastern region's failed breakaway attempt.

"It's a shame for Europe to have political prisoners," he said.

In a major victory for Puigdemont, the upper state court in Schleswig-Holstein on Thursday dismissed the rebellion charge against him over his role in last October's independence referendum, deemed illegal by the Spanish government.

Rebellion -- which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in Spain -- was not punishable under German law, they ruled.

The closest German equivalent, the criminal offence of high treason, did not apply because Puigdemont's actions were not accompanied by violence, the judges found.

But they said the former Catalan president could still be sent to Spain to face trial for the alleged misuse of public funds in organising the disputed referendum.

The German judges said they needed to gather more information before making a decision on the embezzlement charge in the coming weeks, but ruled that Puigdemont be released in the meantime.

Blow to Madrid 

Madrid has estimated that some 1.6 million euros in public money was improperly used to hold the referendum. If convicted, Puigdemont faces up to eight years in jail.

As part of his bail conditions, Puigdemont must remain in Germany and report to police weekly. On Twitter he said he will now to travel to Berlin, where a press conference is being planned.

German police detained Puigdemont on March 25 as he was travelling from Finland back to Belgium, where he has been living in self-imposed exile for the past six months.

The arrest came two days after Spain's Supreme Court ordered international warrants for Puigdemont and other fugitive Catalan leaders on charges linked to holding the banned referendum.

The German court's refusal to accept the rebellion charge is a blow to Madrid, as under European law it means Puigdemont cannot be prosecuted for the offence even if he is returned to Spain.

Despite the setback, the Spanish government said it respected the German judges' decision.

"It's a matter between judges, not a matter between governments," said government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo.

Berlin, which has long expressed support for Madrid's actions in the Catalan row, declined to comment on the latest judicial developments.

"The process lies in the hands of the justice system, as is right," said German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer.

The United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, said rebellion prosecutions "raise serious risks of deterring wholly legitimate speech, even if it is controversial and discomfiting."

Flights to Europe 

Catalonia has been mired in political crisis ever since the region unilaterally declared independence on October 27 in the wake of the controversial referendum.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government responded by sacking the Catalan government, taking direct control of the region and calling early elections.

The December vote was won by a block of separatist parties. But they have been unable to elect a president and form a government as their chosen candidates are now either in exile, in jail or facing prosecution.

Fresh regional elections will be triggered if a new leader is not elected by May 22.

Puigdemont was one of a number of Catalan figureheads who fled abroad to escape prosecution, dragging other European countries into the spat.

A Belgian judge on Thursday bailed three former Catalan ministers after they handed themselves in to police there.

Another former Catalan minister, Clara Ponsati, was bailed in Scotland last week.

They face charges of rebellion, misuse of public funds and disobeying the state.

Nine other pro-independence figures are currently in custody in Spain, including six members of Puigdemont's Catalan government and the former president of the regional parliament.

A major demonstration calling for imprisoned separatist leaders to be freed is planned for April 15 in Barcelona.

Source AFP - SBS


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