Judge refuses to free four Catalan leaders as elections near

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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.

The warrant was originally issued after Puigdemont and Antonio Comin, Lluis Puig, Meritxell Serret and Clara Ponsati travelled to Belgium in the wake of the Catalan unilateral declaration of independence on October 27.

On Monday, a Belgian court said it would rule on December 14 whether to extradite Puigdemont whilst a court in Spain made a decision to keep the former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras and three other senior Catalan politicians in jail on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

On Tuesday, a judge said individual warrants do not apply to a crime committed by them as part of a wider group and that the probed politicians have shown their "intention to return to Spain" in order to run for elections in Catalonia.

The move comes a day after the five former Catalonia leaders appeared in court in Belgium - the country to which they fled to avoid arrest for charges of sedition, misuse of government funds and rebellion stemming from Catalonia's big for independence from Madrid. The charges carry maximum penalties of decades in prison.

Catalans remain deeply split on independence, and several polls suggest pro-secession parties might struggle to win enough seats to form a new regional government.

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There is also a question that if the former leaders were returned to Spain, it could violate their human rights, under European Union law, based on political discrimination.

Catalonia will hold fresh regional elections on December 21, called by the central government after it took direct control of the region.

On Tuesday, campaigning began for the December 21 Catalan regional election that Madrid called in an attempt to resolve the crisis by installing an administration in favor of Spanish unity. Puigdemont would be arrested if he went to Spain, he said.

Bekaert said legal proceedings in Belgium were now over.

Because the Belgian penal code doesn't have an equivalent for a charge of "rebellion", the Spanish court withdrew the global warrants to allow for legal action against Puigdemont, as rebellion is one of the most serious crimes attributed to him.

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