Spanish prosecutors defy order to apply amnesty to Catalonia's ex-leader

Parliamentary session to approve a bill granting amnesty to those involved in Catalonia's failed independence bid in 2017, in Madrid

MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish prosecutors handling a case against Catalan separatist leaders have defied an order to apply an amnesty law to defendants charged with embezzlement.

The legislation, which the minority government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pushed through in return for support in parliament from the separatists, is set to wipe clean the criminal records of almost 500 officials and activists involved in Catalonia's pro-independence push since 2011.

It entered into force on Tuesday and courts now have up to two months to apply it.

Spain's government depends on the support of Junts and several regional groups to pass legislation, and the future of that support is not certain. Junts lawmaker Eduard Pujol said on Thursday his group would not support any government bill unless it strengthened and respected Catalonia.

The prosecutor's office estimated there were 82 criminal proceedings involving 486 people under way that could be affected by the amnesty law, with former Catalan government chief Carles Puigdemont being its highest-profile beneficiary.

The leader of pro-Catalan independence party Junts and four other politicians still have cases pending for their role in the region's failed secession bid in 2017, including alleged embezzlement of public funds to hold an illegal referendum.

The Supreme Court prosecutors handling the Puigdemont case say embezzlement falls outside the law's scope, despite the nation's chief prosecutor, Alvaro Garcia Ortiz, ordering them to include it on Friday.

The disagreement involves different interpretations of whether the defendants were seeking personal enrichment when allegedly committing the embezzlement. The dissenting Supreme Court prosecutors believe that to be the case, which would exclude Puigdemont and the others from the amnesty law's scope.

Garcia Ortiz has summoned Spain's 38 highest-ranking prosecutors for a meeting next Tuesday to address the issue. He said he would listen to their arguments and decide whether to maintain his stance or change it.

The prosecutors will have to abide or recuse themselves and hand the case over to others.

Puigdemont, who lives in self-imposed exile in France and was second in last month's Catalan election, has said he will return to Spain the day the regional parliament votes on a new leader, but the date has yet to be set.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo; Editing by David Latona and Timothy Heritage)