4 Catalan separatists kept in jail as campaigning begins

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 02:59:50 AM. Political parties in Catalonia start campaigning for early regional election featuring pro-independence candidates who are in jail or living abroad to avoid detention.

Political parties in Catalonia started campaigning Monday for the early regional election called by the Spanish government in hopes of quashing the region's independence movement and featuring candidates who are either in jail or living abroad to avoid detention.

The highly polarized parliamentary election set for Dec. 21 is shaping up as a plebiscite between Catalans who support secession and those who favor remaining in Spain. Voters are choosing regional lawmakers and top government officials to replace the ones the central government removed from office in late October.

Hours before pro-secession parties held evening rallies to launching their bids for seats in the Catalan parliament, a Supreme Court judge in Madrid ruled that four prominent members of the region's independence movement must remain jailed without bail.

They include former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who is heading up the slate of the left-republican ERC party in the upcoming election. Junqueras was unseated along with ex-president Carles Puigdemont and the rest of Puigdemont's Cabinet after regional lawmakers passed a declaration of independence that Spanish authorities deemed illegal.

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Six other Catalan politicians who had been jailed with Junqueras since early November were released from jails near Madrid late Monday after the 100,000-euro ($118,000) bail a Supreme Court judge set for them earlier in the day was posted.

Meanwhile, former regional leader Puigdemont and four of his separatist allies learned Monday that a decision on Spain's request for their extraditions from Belgium will be made Dec. 14. That's one week before the regional election in which Puigdemont is leading his pro-independence party's ticket as its presidential candidate.

However, a final decision may not come until well after the election because of appeals.

The five Catalan officials fled to Belgium and are refusing to return to Spain to face possible rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges over the push for independence. The charges carry maximum penalties of decades in prison.

Puigdemont's Belgian defense lawyer, Paul Bekaert, insisted that there are no grounds for extradition because the Spanish charges were not punishable in Belgium.

"We also highlighted the danger for the impediment of their human rights in Spain," Bekaert said.

The Spanish government has said the early election is an attempt to find a democratic way out of the nation's worst crisis in nearly four decades. Polls predict a close race between the pro- and anti-independence camps.

A government-run poll published Monday indicated that pro-independence parties would lose their slim majority in Catalonia's parliament. It had ERC, Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and the far-left anti-establishment CUP party winning 66 or 67 of the parliament's 135 seats.

The CIS survey said the poll had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points. The poll of 3,000 people was conducted by telephone Nov. 23-Nov. 27.

With political campaigning not set to get underway until midnight, Catalan pro-independence groups held protests in front of town halls to oppose the Supreme Court's decision to keep some of the independence movement's leaders in custody.

Pilar Gonzalez, 76, said while walking her dog in Barcelona that the jailed Catalan political leaders were "political prisoners." But 53-year-old contractor Jose Luis Aguirre said the attempt to unilaterally break away from Spain "is an act that cannot be allowed."

In the hope of being freed, Junqueras and the other jailed politicians pledged last week to give up on efforts to seek unilateral independence for the wealthy northeastern region,. But Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena said Monday that it remains to be seen if Junqueras' pledge was "truthful and real."

ERC spokeswoman Marta Rovira described the jailing as "a covert attempt" by Spain's central authorities in Madrid to get ERC out of the picture before this month's voting.

"This is a very clear attempt to win these elections without political adversaries," she said.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido was unmoved by the arguments of Junqueras' supporters.

"Those who commit criminal acts must place themselves at the mercy of legal rulings," Zoido said.

The Supreme Court judge also upheld custody orders without bail for the former regional interior minister, Joaquim Forn, and the leaders of Assemblea Nacional Catalan and Omnium Cultural, two grassroots groups that have been the main drivers of the separatist bid in Catalonia.

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