Fate of jailed Catalan leaders to be decided Monday

Madrid (AFP) - A Spanish Supreme Court judge will decide Monday whether or not to release 10 separatist leaders who were jailed pending a probe into their role in Catalonia's independence drive.

Jailed Catalan leaders could be freed as they face judge

Jailed Catalan leaders could be freed as they face judge

Any release on bail would mark a turn in the campaign for regional elections on December 21, particularly for separatist parties who have repeatedly accused Madrid of taking "political prisoners" and "repression" after their attempt to declare unilateral independence failed.

"State repression is the mobilising element of the independence movement right now," said Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

"Once they no longer have political prisoners, they will have to change their campaign."

Judge Pablo Llarena of the Supreme Court, in charge of the case, questioned the separatist leaders on Friday, most of whom are charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

But he said he wouldn't take his decision until Monday, said a judicial source who refused to be named.

- Hoping for release -

Catalonia's sacked vice-president Oriol Junqueras was the first to be questioned behind closed doors by Llarena -- a meeting that lasted just 20 minutes, according to a court source.

By mid afternoon, Llarena had seen seven other former regional ministers as well as the leaders of two pro-independence civic associations.

Prosecutors asked for them to stay in prison, saying they "considered that the risk of them escaping and repeating their offence remained."

Until last week, Spain's National Court, which takes on major criminal cases, had been in charge of the case and had sent to jail Junqueras, his former ministers and the two leaders of the pro-independence ANC and Omnium Cultural associations.

But then the probe changed hands and Llarena took on the case.

Llarena had previously decided the members of Catalonia's parliament he had been investigating on similar charges could remain free as the probe continues.

Now he has taken on the probe of the other separatist leaders, they hope he will make the same decision for them.

Ester Capella, a national lawmaker for Junqueras's ERC party, said they were ready with the money if the defendants were ordered to post bail.

"We've planned everything so that they can post bail, so that they can be freed immediately," she told reporters at the Madrid court.

- Separatist movement divided -

The jailing of separatist leaders has caused outrage in Catalonia, where pro-independence supporters have organised rallies and wear yellow ribbons as a sign of solidarity.

On Friday, Catalonia's deposed president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the independence declaration, said he wanted them "home."

"You should get out of prison because you never should have gone there. Do whatever you need to get out," he tweeted.

Puigdemont and several other former regional ministers have remained in Belgium, where they await possible extradition to Spain.

Despite facing charges that could carry up to 30 years in jail, Puigdemont, Junqueras and the majority of the Catalan government that was sacked by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after the independence declaration will take part in regional elections.

But independence never materialised, and they have not clarified how they will proceed if they win elections again like they did in September 2015 as part of a coalition.

The release of the separatist leaders -- if it happens -- could also revive tensions within the separatist bloc, particularly between Puigdemont and Junqueras, from a conservative and left-wing party respectively.

Unlike the 2015 elections, Puigdemont's PDeCAT party and Junqueras's ERC will not join forces as part of a coalition and instead are competing to lead the independence movement.

"They are forcing independence supporters to choose between a jailed martyr vice-president or a president in exile," said Gabriel Colome, a politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

ERC is currently favourite to win the elections later this month according to opinion polls, which also predict separatist and anti-independence parties will be neck-and-neck.

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