Former Catalan leader calls for dialogue with Spain

People raise flags as former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is surrounded by media after a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, April 7, 2018. Puigdemont was released on bail from the prison in Neumuenster, northern Germany, Friday. He was detained by German police March 25 after crossing the border from Denmark. Spain is seeking his extradition for rebellion and misuse of public funds in organizing an unauthorized referendum last year on Catalonia's independence from Spain. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

BERLIN - Fugitive former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont on Saturday made a renewed call for Spanish authorities to open negotiations over Catalonia's secession claim, a day after he was released from a German prison.

Puigdemont told reporters that he hoped a German court's decision not to extradite him to Spain on charges of rebellion shows that "dialogue is needed" to defuse the political conflict in his home country.

"I hope the situation could help ... Spanish authorities understand that political measures are needed," Puigdemont said at a press conference in Berlin. "This opens a new opportunity of dialogue."

The former leader left a German prison in Neumuenster on bail Friday, almost two weeks after his arrest, after the Schwesig state court in Germany decided the charge of rebellion did not warrant extradition because the accusation isn't punishable under German law. Puigdemont can still be extradited on the less serious charge of misuse of funds to hold Catalonia's banned independence referendum last year.

Germany Justice Minister Katarina Barley applauded the court's decision to free Puigdemont on bail as "absolutely right" and what she had expected.

Barley said it was now up to Spain to prove their other charges against Puigdemont, which she said "won't be easy."

She said that if Spain couldn't prove the allegations of misuse of public funds, "then Puigdemont will be a free man in a free country — namely in Germany."

Misuse of public funds carries a sentence of up to eight years in Spain, while a rebellion sentence can reach 30 years.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, speaking in the southern Spanish city of Seville, said his government respects the decision by the German court. He said his government "upholds and abides by" rulings by courts in Spain and elsewhere.

Rajoy's position was not shared by the leading politician of his conservative Popular Party in Catalonia.

Xavier Garcia-Albiol said the decision not to extradite Puigdemont could hurt the "confidence" Spaniards have in "European institutions."

Puigdemont, 55, told reporters he would stay in Berlin until his extradition case is concluded. If he is not sent back to Spain, he said he plans to return to Belgium where he has established residency in Waterloo since fleeing from Spain in October.

The former Catalan leader was detained on a European arrest warrant after entering Germany on March 25.

The issue of breaking century-old ties with the rest of Spain has divided the 7.5 million residents of the wealthy Catalonia region roughly in half. Pro-independence parties managed to maintain their slim majority in the regional parliament during local elections in December.

The pro-independence parties have since been locked in drawn-out negotiations on how to form a government, with Spanish courts blocking efforts to reinstall Puigdemont or elect other jailed separatists as regional head.

On Saturday, the speaker of Catalonia's regional parliament again proposed that jailed separatist activist Jordi Sanchez be elected as the new Catalan leader.

Puigdemont also said Saturday that he was backing a second attempt to elect Sanchez, who failed last month to convince a judge to let him out of jail to attend an investiture debate in the Barcelona-based chamber.

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Grieshaber reported from Berlin, Wilson from Barcelona, Spain.


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