The arrest will cast a shadow over talks which had restarted between Spain and Catalonia
Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was expected to appear in court in Italy on Friday after being arrested as he arrived in the country in a move which will throw into doubt talks which had restarted between Spain and Catalonia to resolve the worst political crisis in decades.
The 58-year-old MEP was arrested on Thursday as he stepped off a plane at Alguero airport in Sardinia and will appear at a hearing that could see him extradited to Spain to face sedition charges.
The Catalan leader has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since fleeing Spain hidden in the boot of a car after a failed 2017 independence referendum, which was declared illegal by Spanish courts.
Mr Puigdemont is wanted in Spain on allegations of sedition over his attempts to have the Catalan region break away from Madrid through the 2017 referendum.
He was arrested under a European arrest warrant issued by Spain.
Mr Puigdemont’s detention comes a week after the left-wing Spanish government and regional Catalan authorities resumed negotiations to find a solution to Spain’s territorial crisis.
Pere Aragonés, the Catalan president who is a moderate supporter of independence, condemned the “persecution” of Mr Puigdemont.
“In the face of persecution and judicial repression, the strongest condemnation. It has to stop,” he tweeted.
Supporters of the former president held demonstrations on Friday in Barcelona.
The Spanish government said it respected the decision of the Italian justice system.
“The arrest of Mr Puigdemont corresponds to an ongoing judicial procedure that applies to any EU citizen who has to answer to the courts,” it said in a statement.
However, in Spain the arrest was applauded by conservatives and the far-right Vox party.
Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, tweeted: “This renegade coup leader has done a lot of damage to Spain, especially Catalonia. I hope that justice will sit him on the bench and condemn his crimes before the government puts him back on the street.”
The Catalan leader’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, tweeted that the exiled separatist leader was arrested on his arrival in Italy, where he was travelling in his capacity as an MEP for a cultural festival there.
He said the arrest was made on the basis of a warrant issued in October 2019 that had since been suspended.
However, sources from the Spanish Supreme Court, which issued the original warrant, said it had never been suspended.
In March, the European Parliament rescinded immunity for Mr Puigdemont and two other pro-independence MEPs, a decision that was upheld in July by the EU’s General Court.
However, the exiled separatists have appealed against this decision and a final ruling by the EU court has yet to be made.
The October 2017 referendum was held by Catalonia’s separatist regional leadership despite a ban by Madrid and the process was marred by police violence.
A few weeks later, the leadership made a short-lived declaration of independence, prompting Mr Puigdemont to flee abroad.
Nine others who stayed in Spain were tried and jailed for terms of between nine and 13 years. They were all pardoned in June.
Catalonia is split on the issue of independence, with a recent poll for La Razon newspaper finding 49.4 per cent did not want to break away from Spain, while 45.7 per cent were in favour.