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Belgian court rejects move to extradite ex-Catalan minister

BRUSSELS (AP) — A Belgian court on Friday rejected Spain’s demand to have a former high-ranking politician from the region of Catalonia extradited, in yet another set back for the country's efforts to try several officials in exile over their alleged roles in an independence referendum that Madrid branded as illegal.

The Brussels prosecutor’s office said the court had decided not to enforce a European arrest warrant for former Catalan culture minister Lluis Puig on the grounds that “the Spanish authorities who issued the warrant are not competent to do so.”

Puig has been living in exile in Belgium since he, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and a number of their associates fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest over their alleged roles in the secessionist push and the holding of an independence referendum that the Spanish government had banned.

The vote sparked a police crackdown and led to one of Spain’s biggest political crises in decades as mass protests roiled the relatively wealthy northeast region of 7.5 million people. Polls and recent elections show that Catalans are roughly equally split by the secession question. Spaniards as a whole are strongly against it.

Puig's lawyers had argued that Spain’s Supreme Court does not have the jurisdiction to judge him and that only a Catalan court is competent to do so, and they said the Belgian court agreed with them. Lawyer Paul Bekaert told reporters that the Spanish constitution only allows the country's Supreme Court to issue this kind of arrest warrant when it concerns members of parliament. He underlined that Puig has never been a lawmaker.

The Belgian prosecutor’s office said later that it will appeal the Brussels court ruling. It's the third time that a European arrest warrant against exiled Catalan politicians has been rejected. Bekaert accused Spanish authorities of abusing the European arrest warrant system for political purposes.

“Political problems must be resolved in a political way and not a juridical way. Political adversaries must be fought in parliaments and the press, in public forums, and not in the justice palace," he said. “We must not export our political problems in Spain to other countries of Europe."

An outstanding case involves Puigdemont and former Catalan health minister Toni Comin. They have both been elected to the European Parliament and so have some protection from prosecution, but the assembly is weighing whether to lift their immunity.

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