The Spanish Supreme Court withdrew on Tuesday the international warrant for the arrest of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont.
Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium after an illegal independence referendum. The withdrawal of the arrest warrant would leave him without an international legal platform to pursue his independence campaign. The Supreme Court move brings his case back solely into Spanish jurisdiction
Puigdemont and four of his cabinet members went to Belgium when Madrid imposed direct rule on the wealthy northeastern region after an October 27 declaration of independence by his local government.
A Supreme Court spokesman said that the five could still be arrested if they go back to Spain, however, because they are still being sought at home for possible crimes on charges of sedition, rebellion, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust.
The crimes are punishable in Spain with decades in prison.
With the warrant withdrawal official, Puigdemont is fully free in his movements and no longer bound to respect the initial restrictions from the court case, which included the provision that he had to stay in Belgium, spokeswoman Ine Van Wymersch said.
"The restrictions that were set up by the Brussels investigating judge are no longer in effect. So here in Belgium. Mr. Puigdemont and his four ministers are free to leave the country if they want," Van Wymersch said.
In a surprise move, Supreme Court magistrate Pablo Llarena said on Tuesday that individual warrants don't apply anymore because the alleged crimes were a group action, according to new evidence.
He also said that the probed politicians have shown their "intention to return to Spain" in order to run for regional elections in Catalonia.
But Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer, Paul Bekaert, said that the Catalan separatist leader wasn't planning an immediate return.
"For the moment he stays in Belgium," Bekaert told VTM network.
The battle between Madrid and Catalan secessionists has hurt the Spanish economy and prompted thousands of companies to shift their legal headquarters outside of Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy.
On Tuesday, campaigning began for the December 21 Catalan regional election that Madrid called in an attempt to resolve the crisis by installing an administration in favor of Spanish unity.
However, pro-independence parties view the election as a proxy vote on a split from Spain. Polls show both sides neck and neck on a high turnout.
A Spanish court issued the international arrest warrant for Puigdemont on November 3.
On Monday, a Spanish court declared it would keep Puigdemont’s former vice president Oriol Junqueras in custody in Madrid while he is investigated for his role in preparing the independence referendum.
Removing the international warrant takes Belgium’s legal system out of Puigdemont’s case. There could have been months of legal wrangling if appeals against his extradition were moved through the Belgian courts.
Bekaert said legal proceedings in Belgium were now over. Puigdemont would be arrested if he went to Spain, he said.
Puigdemont’s party, Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Spanish court said Puigdemont and his cabinet members had shown a willingness to return from Belgium to Spain to take part in the election.
Puigdemont gave a televised address from Belgium at a campaign rally on Monday, telling the central government in Madrid that his party would win the election.
“I‘m very sorry I can’t be with you now,” he said to cheers from members of his pro-independence Junts per Catalunya party, which organized the rally.