What now for deposed Catalan leader Puigdemont?

by Mathieu GORSE, Alvaro VILLALOBOS
In theory, Puigdemont could remain in self-exile for 20 years, which in Spain's legal system is the time limit after which the rebellion charge is no longer valid

Now he is rid of a Spanish international arrest warrant, Catalonia's deposed president Carles Puigdemont can go anywhere he pleases save Spain, and continue playing a central role in his region's separatist politics from afar.

So what's next?

- Return to Belgium -

Sacked as Catalan president after a failed secession bid on October 27, Puigdemont fled to Brussels several days later as did several members of his executive who had also been deposed.

There, he settled in Waterloo before being arrested in Germany at the end of March on his return from a trip to Finland.

Puigdemont was freed on bail around 10 days later and set about waiting for a German court decision on an extradition request by Spain, where he is wanted over his role in the independence drive.

But on Thursday, Spain's Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, in charge of the case against separatist leaders, dropped the international arrest warrant.

That means Puigdemont, who is currently living in Hamburg, will return to Waterloo, said Gonzalo Boye, one of his lawyers.

From there, he will be able to travel where he wants, save Spain where he is still wanted for rebellion, which carries up to 25 years in jail, and misuse of public funds.

In theory, Puigdemont could remain in self-exile for 20 years, which in Spain's legal system is the time limit after which the rebellion charge is no longer valid.

Puigdemont is "aware this could last many years in the worst-case scenario," said Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, another of his lawyers.

- High profile -

Since he left at the end of October, Puigdemont has maintained a prime position in Catalan politics.

He led the list for his Together for Catalonia grouping in December regional elections which separatist parties won.

He was however unable to make a comeback as Catalan president and rule from abroad after the Constitutional Court ruled against it, and nominated Quim Torra as his successor.

Once back in Belgium, Puigdemont, whom Torra considers the "legitimate" Catalan president, will put in place a "republican council" from which he intends to lead the separatist camp from afar.

- Why did judge drop warrant? -

In his court ruling, Llarena said he had taken the decision after a German court agreed to extradite Puigdemont earlier this month for misuse of public funds and not rebellion.

"He did it to avoid other setbacks," says Xavier Arbos, constitutional law professor at the University of Barcelona.

Already in December, Llarena had withdrawn international arrest warrants against Puigdemont and other former members of Catalonia's separatist executive, arguing Belgium could potentially reject some of the charges in the warrant.

He re-activated them in March, when Puigdemont travelled to Finland and then Germany.

But as he had anticipated, a Belgian court in May refused to extradite three of his former regional ministers who had remained in Belgium.

And then in another setback, the German court said it would only extradite Puigdemont for misuse of public funds.

Analysing the decision, Spanish media said accepting that Puigdemont be returned to Spain on just that charge would have weakened his entire case against other separatist leaders who are in custody in Spain and also accused of rebellion.

The El Pais daily argued it would have been difficult for the judge to put Puigdemont in preventative custody just for that charge, creating an imbalance with the others who are in jail.

As such, Puigdemont could even potentially have made a comeback as Catalan president.

But this may not be the end of arrest warrants.

According to Catalonia's La Vanguardia daily, Puigdemont's lawyers are expecting Spanish courts to re-activate international arrest warrants if those separatist leaders in custody in Spain are convicted of rebellion in a trial expected in October.

In theory, Puigdemont could remain in self-exile for 20 years, which in Spain's legal system is the time limit after which the rebellion charge is no longer valid