BRUSSELS: Belgian prosecutors asked a judge on Friday (Nov 17) to extradite axed Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to Spain to face sedition charges over his region's independence drive, with the court setting a date of Dec 4 for the next hearing.
Madrid issued a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and four of his former ministers after they fled to Brussels last month and ignored a summons to appear before a Spanish judge, claiming they would not get a fair trial.
Lawyers for the Catalan separatists said prosecutors had formally asked the judge to approve the warrant during a hearing behind closed doors in Brussels on Friday - the first round in what could become a protracted courtroom battle.
"The prosecutors asked for the execution of the European arrest warrant" issued by Madrid, lawyer Christophe Marchand told reporters afterwards at the Palace of Justice in Brussels.
The proceedings were postponed until Dec 4, when the defence will put their case, a prosecutor's statement said.
"This decision was made to ensure that all parties involved can prepare and clarify their position regarding the execution of the European arrest warrants," the statement added.
But with both sides expected to appeal if the judge rules against them, the case could drag on for up to three months, according to the Belgian justice minister.
'I TRUST THE LEGAL PROCESS'
This could leave Puigdemont and his cadres still in Belgium when Catalonia goes to the polls on Dec 21 for an election ordered by Madrid to "restore normality" to the wealthy northeastern region.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has taken a tough line throughout the Catalan secession crisis, said he respected Belgian justice and would follow whatever decision the court made.
"I trust the legal process and, above all, I respect and abide by its decisions," he said at an EU summit in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Lawyers for the five Catalans have said they plan to use European Union rights legislation to fight the extradition, arguing that the charges are politically motivated.
"We are going to ask the Belgian judge to respect fundamental EU rights," Michele Hirsch, a lawyer for two of the ex-ministers, told AFP before Friday's hearing.
"The act of organising a referendum is not a matter for criminal law. It is clearly a political opinion that is being targeted, and the peaceful and democratic execution of a series of events linked to that opinion," she said.
Puigdemont's self-imposed exile is proving a headache for Belgium, whose fragile coalition government includes Flemish nationalists sympathetic to the Catalan cause.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel met Rajoy on the sidelines of the Gothenburg summit, though sources said they talked about "the future of the EU" and other issues - not Catalonia.
On Thursday night Puigdemont had dinner at the home of a politician from the Flemish separatist N-VA party.
The hearing is the latest act in Spain's biggest political crisis in decades, sparked by a banned Oct 1 referendum that the Catalan parliament then used as a mandate to declare independence.
Madrid in response dissolved the regional assembly and dismissed the Catalan executive, and eight former ministers are behind bars in Spain on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
'DEMOCRACY WILL PREVAIL'
The five who fled to Brussels went to a Belgian police station on Nov 5 to answer the warrant and were freed that evening after hours of questioning, on condition that they not leave Belgium.
Under Belgian law a decision on a European arrest warrant - brought in by the EU to speed up the once-lengthy extradition process in the bloc - should be made within 60 days.
The case is being heard by a Dutch-speaking judge - defendants in linguistically divided Belgium have the option to choose which language the judge hearing their case speaks, and the Catalans have won support from Dutch-speaking Flemish separatists in Belgium.
Puigdemont, 54, who still describes himself as Catalonia's "president", has been active in the media since arriving in Belgium, but his efforts to internationalise the crisis have fallen flat with EU leaders who have closed ranks behind Madrid.
In an interview with Scotland's former independence leader Alex Salmond on the Kremlin-backed RT outlet on Thursday, Puigdemont remained defiant, declaring "we will win finally, democracy will prevail".