Catalan separatist leader Carle Puigdemont left a prison in Sardinia after a judge ruled he could be released pending an October 4 hearing on his extradition to Spain, where he is wanted on sedition charges.
Puigdemont, the former president of the Spanish region of Catalonia and member of the European Parliament, left Sassari prison a day after his arrest by police.
He had been invited to attend a Catalan cultural event and a meeting of Sardinian independence supporters on the Mediterranean island.
Hours before her release on Friday, Judge Plinia Clara Azzena ruled that Puigdemont was free to travel without restrictions.
The judge told The Associated Press that although she found her arrest valid, based on the documentation she reviewed, “we did not restrict it in any way. He can travel ”if he wants to.
Judge Azzena and two other judges will hold a hearing on October 4 to rule on the extradition.
Puigdemont’s Italian lawyer Agostinangelo Marras said the three-judge panel will review the extradition request and decide whether it is valid. He said the process should take “a few weeks”.
Puigdemont was taken into custody Thursday evening upon his arrival at Alghero airport in Sardinia.
Sardinia has strong Catalan cultural roots and its own independence movement. Alghero, a town on the northwest coast of the island, hosts the traditional Catalan folklore festival which Puigdemont attended.
Protesters in front of the Sassari courthouse held signs in a Sardinian dialect proclaiming “Democracy, the Sardinian nation supports the Catalan nation”, and held the flags of Sardinia and Catalonia.
Although Puigdemont holds a seat in the European Parliament, the legislator has withdrawn his parliamentary immunity.
His detention sparked political unrest in Spain, where Catalan independence was for decades a deeply contentious issue. Separatists demanded his release and scheduled street protests, while center-right parties said he should be brought to justice.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Friday during an official visit to the Canary Islands that he respected “all legal proceedings opened in Spain, Europe and, in this case, Italy”.
Mr Sanchez, who recently opened direct talks with Catalan regional leaders, said: “Dialogue is the only way to bring Catalans who have separate opinions together and to bring Catalans together with the rest of Spain.”
Just under half of Catalans want to break with Spain, opinion polls show, but most Spaniards don’t want Catalonia to gain independence.
At the heart of the immediate legal question was whether the warrant issued by Spain requesting the arrest of Puigdemont is valid. Gonzalo Boye, his lawyer, insisted that the warrant issued in 2019 had been suspended.
The Spanish Supreme Court judge in charge of the case, Pablo Llarena, sent a letter to the European Union Agency for Criminal Judicial Cooperation stating that the warrant was “in force and pending the capture of those accused of rebellion ”.
Ultimately, it will be up to the Italian Ministry of Justice to approve or deny the extradition.
This is not the first time that Spanish courts have tried to detain Puigdemont abroad. After a Belgian court refused to return him in 2017, the following year he was arrested in Germany, but a court also refused to extradite him.
Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing they would be arrested after holding a referendum on Catalonia’s independence that the Spanish courts and government declared illegal.
Nine Catalan separatists were sentenced to prison terms for their role in the 2017 referendum, ranging from nine to 13 years. They were pardoned in July but Puigdemont, who fled, was not.