Belgium hopes to act on warrant for hiding Catalan leader

 In U.S.

BRUSSELS — The ousted leader of Catalonia remained the subject of a European arrest warrant Saturday as questions mounted over how long he would elude the Spanish justice system by staying undercover in Belgium and delaying extradition.

Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several members of his separatist government fled north to Brussels after Spanish authorities removed the region’s top officials from office a week ago. It is thought that Puigdemont and four others still are in Belgium, but sources close to them would not reveal their whereabouts.

Puigdemont wrote in Dutch on his Twitter account Saturday that he would “cooperate” with Belgian authorities, although his lawyer has said the pro-independence politician would fight a forced return to Spain.

“We are prepared to fully cooperate with Belgian justice following the European arrest warrant issued by Spain,” Puigdemont wrote in Dutch on his Twitter account.

Prosecutors in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, said they were examining the arrest warrants for Puigdemont and four of his associates Saturday and hope to launch extradition proceedings as soon as possible.

Federal prosecutors in Belgium shared the warrants with their city counterparts due to links the five politicians from Catalonia have to Brussels, a statement from the Brussels prosecutors’ office said.

The statement did not explain what those links are. Puigdemont spoke at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday and appeared on Belgian state television on Friday.

Besides the Dutch tweet he posted on Saturday, Puigdemont also sent a Twitter message written in Catalan to political followers in northeastern Spain. He weighed in on a debate among secessionists in Catalonia regarding strategy for the December snap election Spain’s government has called as part of its temporary takeover of the restive region.

“It’s the moment for all democrats to unite. For Catalonia, for the freedom of political prisoners and the Republic,” Puigdemont wrote, endorsing calls for pro-secession political parties to unite in a coalition for the upcoming election.

Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that politicians, even those who are jailed on suspicion of a crime, can run in the upcoming election unless they are convicted before it takes place. Puigdemont has left the door open to running.

Back in Barcelona, the government seat of Catalonia, pro-union parties criticized Puigdemont for his flight to Europe’s capital 1,066 kilometers (662 miles) away.

Albert Rivera, the leader of the liberal Citizens party, said that Puigdemont had gotten what he asked for when he pushed ahead with plans for secession despite warnings from Spanish authorities that he was breaking the law.

“Mr. Puigdemont, wherever you are, come back to Spain and show your face before the law,” Rivera said. “When you once bragged about flouting the law, you cannot now be indignant when a judge opens an investigation into your acts.”

Miquel Iceta, leader of Catalonia’s Socialists, said at a separate rally: “We have members of the government in prison, and others in Brussels trying to avoid the law. This is time to build bridges, not raise frontiers.”

Puigdemont and the four former ministers are being sought for five crimes, including rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, for their roles in pushing regional lawmakers to declare independence from Spain.

But the longer Puigdemont can delay his arrest and extradition, the greater chance he would have of being a factor in the Dec. 21 election.

Legal experts have told The Associated Press that the process of getting another country’s suspect turned over to face charges — from arrest to extradition, including appeals — could take about two months in Belgium.

Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said his government will have no influence over the future of Puigdemont or the other Catalan officials because the European arrest warrant “is a completely legal procedure.”

He said, unlike a normal international extradition, “the executive power does not play any role in the EAW procedure. Everything goes through direct contact between the justice authorities.”

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