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Deposed Catalan leader Puigdemont to return to Belgium
[BRUSSELS] Catalonia's deposed president Carles Puigdemont returns to Belgium on Saturday to keep pressing for his region's independence after a Spanish judge dropped a European arrest warrant for him.
"My political activity will be based in Belgium, of course with the aim of pursuing the mandate by the people" for an independent Catalonia, Mr Puigdemont said in Berlin when he announced his return this week.
Four months after he was detained in Germany at Madrid's request, Mr Puigdemont can return to Belgium as he no longer runs the risk of extradition to Spain after the Spanish court cancelled the warrant.
The 55-year-old former regional leader, with his signature shaggy Beatles-style mop, will continue to fight for Catalan independence south of Brussels in the town of Waterloo, which is known for another battle - French emperor Napoleon's defeat by a mix of European forces in 1815.
Sacked as Catalan president after a failed secession bid on October 27, Mr Puigdemont and several members of his executive fled to Brussels several days later.
He was then arrested in Germany at the end of March on his return from a trip to Finland.
Mr 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 the German court ruled that he could be extradited only on possible corruption charges and not for "rebellion" as sought by Madrid but which is not recognised under German law.
Following that decision, Spain's Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, in charge of the case against separatist leaders, dropped the international arrest warrant.
From Belgium, Mr Puigdemont will be able to travel where he likes, save Spain where he is still wanted for rebellion, which carries up to 25 years in jail, and for misuse of public funds.
In theory, he could remain in self-exile for 20 years, which in Spain's legal system is the time limit after which the rebellion charge would no longer be valid.
Mr Puigdemont is set to be greeted by a welcoming party comprising members of Catalonia's government as well as other pro-independence organisations.
Mr Puigdemont will hold a news conference with his designated successor Quim Torra, who still considers him to be the "legitimate president" of Catalonia, at 11am (0900 GMT) on Saturday.
He will then head to Waterloo for a ceremony at 4pm.
Mr Puigdemont intends to set up a "Republican council" at his home in Waterloo, as well as an assembly composed of local officials to work in parallel with the Catalan government.
"Time for action"
Although power is now officially in the Mr Torra's hands, Mr Puigdemont continues to exert strong influence in the region.
In an illustration of Mr Puigdemont's influence, he managed to reverse his party's stance for greater openness for dialogue with Madrid.
"In Brussels, we will continue... to develop activities linked to that which the people of Catalonia approved on October 1," said Mr Puigdemont, in reference to the referendum that was banned by Spain's courts and marred by police violence.
"It's no longer a Spanish affair that can be resolved internally; a European view is necessary for the Catalonia question," said the region's former president, who expects to travel to other European countries to push his case.
Besides Mr Puigdemont, five other leading members of his pro-independence movement are in Belgium, Switzerland and Scotland.
Mr Torra met Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in early July, with the socialist leader promising to find a way out of the crisis.
Mr Puigdemont wants Sanchez to allow a referendum on the question of independence for Catalonia - something that the prime minister has refused categorically.
He also wants Spain to release nine separatists.
"The change in Spain's government is supposed to come with a change in style and climate... but it's not the time for gestures, it's the time for action," he said.