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Nov 17, 1:48 PM EST

Catalan rebels to campaign from Belgium amid extradition


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AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

BRUSSELS (AP) -- A court in Belgium on Friday pushed back the extradition arguments of ex-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four allies until at least Dec. 4, likely keeping the secessionist rebels in Belgium right through Catalonia's regional election campaign.

The court hearing in Brussels for the five Catalans is the latest step in their flight from Spain to Brussels and their refusal to return to face rebellion and sedition charges that could land them in jail for 25 years or more.

Puigdemont plans to lead his party's campaign for the Dec. 21 election called by Spain's government in an attempt to find a democratic fix to the nation's worst institutional crisis in nearly four decades.

The prime ministers of Spain and Belgium spoke Friday before the court session, discussing ties that have been strained due to the Catalan officials who are wanted on a Spanish arrest warrant.

Puigdemont lawyer Paul Bekaert said after the first court session Friday that "we will argue the case on Dec. 4." Whatever decision is made at that stage, two appeals will be possible and a final ruling could well only come only after the Dec. 21 vote.

Bekaert said even though the prosecutor asked to agree to the Spain's extradition request for the five, the defense lawyers could still give written arguments until early next month.

"So nothing has been decided today," he said.

The prosecutor said, according to Belgian law, there was no corruption on the part of the Catalan five but a "conspiracy of civil servants." And he added that for a refusal to fully commit to their jobs "there can be no extradition." He did not address Spain's rebellion and sedition charges.

The Belgian government has said that it can't intervene in Spain's extradition request since it's up to the country's independent judiciary to make the decision.

"It is a judicial case based on the separation of powers. It is up to the judicial authorities," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said after meeting with his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Goteborg, Sweden.

Rajoy later said he would respect whatever decision the Belgian court makes. He said respecting the independence of the judiciary and accepting judicial decisions was a basic principle of the EU and it would not be a good idea to begin questioning that now.

But the extradition issue continued to create unease.

Spain supplied the Belgian prosecutor with information detailing the jail conditions for Puigdemont and the four others should they be extradited. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said all the information requested had been sent but added "nobody in Europe is going to give us lessons" on democracy.

EU nations have backed Madrid in its standoff with Catalonia. Yet Belgium was among the first to criticize the use of violence by Spanish police who tried to stop a banned Oct. 1 independence referendum. Spain says its police response was proportionate.

Rajoy, meanwhile, dismissed as "intolerable" claims Friday by a leading pro-independence Catalan politician that Spain had threatened to send in troops and warned there would be extreme violence if the Catalan government pushed ahead with its independence drive.

The Republican Left of Catalonia party politician Marta Rovira told the region's RAC1 radio that the message had been passed on to Puigdemont and his deputy Oriol Junqueras - head of Rovira's party - following the Oct. 1 referendum.

She said the threat had come from Spanish government sources but did not identify them.

Rajoy said the claim was "an enormous lie" and "shameful."

The Catalan government took the referendum as a mandate to vote for independence on Oct. 27. Spain responded by sacking Puigdemont's government, dissolving the regional parliament and calling a new election in Catalonia.

Spain's National Court called Puigdemont and his ex-government in for questioning but Puigdemont and four allies fled to Belgium, saying they feared they wouldn't receive a fair hearing in Spain.

However, nine other fellow Catalan officials did answer the summons and a judge sent eight of them provisionally to prison.

Rajoy repeatedly warned the Catalan secessionist lawmakers that he would not allow the prosperous region to break away and Spain's courts had ruled that any such attempt was unconstitutional.

Puigdemont will have to campaign from Belgium since he is prohibited from leaving while his extradition is ruled upon. He can run unless he is convicted.

Polls forecast a tight race between parties in favor of secession and those who want to stay part of Spain.

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Ciaran Giles contributed from Madrid, Joseph Wilson from Barcelona, Spain and Lorne Cook from Goteborg, Sweden.

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