The coast is clear for the Catalan independence leaders to return to Spain... or not

The last time we checked in on Carles Puigdemont and his band of Catalan independence seekers they were holed up in Belgium. After briefly being detained on international warrants, they were going through the normal appeals process before being potentially extradited to Spain. Once back home they faced the prospect of immediate arrest and charges of treason and rebellion among others. Despite the grim outlook, Puigdemont still planned to run for his old office of President in Catalonia, with elections coming up later this month.

But now their fortunes may be looking up… or not. A Spanish judge has withdrawn the arrest warrants for the Catalan leadership team, but their status back home still remains up in the air. The judge in question appears to be making more of a procedural move than clearing them of any danger.

A Spanish judge on Tuesday withdrew international arrest warrants for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four members of his former Cabinet who have been fighting extradition from Belgium.

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 related to the independence bid in northeastern Catalonia.

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.

So the judge from the Supreme Court isn’t clearing these men. He’s simply saying they are suspected of having committed a “group action” rather than individual crimes. (Whatever “group action” means in this context.) The judge is also saying that there’s no need for the original warrants since the group has publicly stated that they intend to return to Spain to run in the upcoming election. Does that mean that they would be allowed to run unimpeded or that he’s not worried because the police can always arrest them as soon as they arrive?

It sounds like Puigdemont is counting on the latter since his attorney in Belgium released a statement saying that they have “no intention to return at this time.”

This doesn’t seem to change the reality on the ground for the five Catalan leaders significantly. They are now free to move about the country or even leave Belgium if they wish, with the Belgian court’s previous restrictions on their movement lifted. But they’re still no more free to go back to Spain than they were before. Or to be more accurate, they’re completely free to return home if they want to be arrested immediately.

The Catalonia elections are coming up in a little more than two weeks and Puigdemont is still the candidate for his independence-leaning party. I suppose it’s still possible that he could win, but what then? Having been elected but not sworn in doesn’t seem to provide any additional protection from arrest, so he could win the battle but lose the war and spend decades in prison. Spanish politics is always interesting, even in the most normal of times, but they’ve really upped their game this year.

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