Emboldened Catalan leader Puigdemont mulling visit to Spain

International

Demonstrators hold signs showing Catalan politician Oriol Junqueras as they protest outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is expected to attend his first session as a member of the European Parliament on Monday despite facing an arrest warrant against him in Spain. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

STRASBOURG, France (AP) — Exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is considering going back to Spain if he gets assurances that he is immune from arrest through his new status as a European legislator.

After his first plenary session in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, he told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that he would work for the release from jail of a fellow proponent of Catalonia’s independence from Spain.

Puigdemont said he was looking for a ruling from the European Parliament “within weeks” over whether he can visit without being arrested. He specifically wants to visit the former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, who was also elected to the European Parliament in May’s elections.

“Why not?” he said. “Spain must recognize my immunity.”

Like Junqueras, Puigdemont was at the forefront of the illegal referendum campaign in Catalonia in 2017 but he managed to flee to Brussels when Spanish authorities issued an arrest warrant for him.

Puigdemont, who was Catalonia’s president until Spain imposed direct rule following the illegal referendum, said he was looking for more legal protections from the European Parliament before he would make the trip. Spain has sought to have him extradited three times over the past two years.

“We hope, in a few, not too (many) months, probably weeks, we have a clear statement from the board of the European parliament,” he said.

In his first act as a European legislator, Puigdemont waved a yellow poster demanding “Free Junqueras.” In October, a Spanish court sentenced Junqueras in October to 13 years in prison for sedition.

“He should be here with us,” he said. “He has the same rights.”

Puigdemont’s abilityto use one of the European Union’s main institutions to relay his message is somewhat of a blow to the authorities in Madrid, who have steadfastly sought to blunt the independence movement in Catalonia.

“They said you will never take your office in the European parliament,” he told the AP in reference to the Spanish authorities. “They failed in all the battlefields. Yes, it is a powerful state, but we won, we won, and we are here.”

Puigdemont arrived at the legislature in the early afternoon, cheered by a few hundred supporters who had over a dozen Catalan flags fluttering in the midday winds outside the legislature in northeastern France. “Puigdemont president,” they shouted in unison.

Puigdemont arrived together with fellow EU legislator and former Catalan minister Toni Comín.

The two, who are both wanted in Spain for their role in the 2017 secession bid, were only able to take up their seats in the European Parliament after the EU’s top court ruled that they could.

Catalonia’s regional coalition government was also in Strasbourg support the pair and demanded Junqueras should also have the right to join them as members of the European Parliament.

“Three MEPs … were elected for the European elections by some 2 million European citizens and these citizens have the right of representation,” Alfred Bosch, the foreign minister of the regional Catalan government, said of Junqueras.

“He has the same rights as we have,” said Puigdemont. “He got more than a million votes. Freedom was not respected.”

The European Parliament said it was legally bound not to give the convicted Junqueras a seat.

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