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Spain withdraws international arrest warrant for former Catalan leader

Spain's Supreme Court on Tuesday withdrew an international arrest warrant for the former leader of Catalonia, now in self-imposed exile in Belgium after a referendum of illegal independence, in a move to take his case return only to Spanish jurisdiction.

Carles Puigdemont and four of his cabinet members went to Belgium when Madrid imposed direct rule over the rich northeastern region after a declaration of independence on October 27 from his local government.

The decision to withdraw the order leaves Puigdemont with no international legal stage on which to continue his campaign of independence. He is likely to be arrested if he returns to Spain, pending investigation on charges of sedition, rebellion, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust.

The battle between Madrid and the Catalan secessionists has hurt the Spanish economy and caused thousands of companies to change their legal headquarters outside of Catalonia, which represents a fifth of Spain's economy.

On Tuesday began the campaign for the Catalan regional elections of December 21st that Madrid convened in an attempt to resolve the crisis by installing an administration in favor of Spanish unity.

However, the pro-independence parties see the election as a vote for power over a division of Spain. Surveys show the two sides neck and neck in a high turnout.

Warrants issued

A Spanish court issued the international arrest warrant for Puigdemont on November 3.

On Monday, a Spanish court ruled that he would keep Puigdemont's former vice president, Oriol Junqueras, in custody in Madrid while being investigated for his role in preparing the referendum on independence.

By eliminating the international order, the Belgian legal system remains outside the case of Puigdemont. Months of legal disputes would occur if the appeals against his extradition were transferred to the Belgian courts.

Investigating magistrate Pablo Llarena of the Supreme Court said it was important that a single legal entity supervise the proceedings against the former pro-independence leaders to ensure they obtained equal treatment.

The Brussels prosecutor's office said in a statement that it had received the decision of the Spanish Supreme Court and on Wednesday it would ask the judge to re-examine the extradition process.

The judge would set a date for a hearing to which "they will have no choice but to declare the matter void," the statement said. Later, Puigdemont could leave Belgium.

Puigdemont's lawyer, Paul Bekaert, said the legal proceedings in Belgium were over. Puigdemont would be arrested if he went to Spain, he said.

The Spanish court said that Puigdemont and the members of his cabinet had shown their willingness to return from Belgium to Spain to participate in the elections.

Puigdemont gave a televised speech from Belgium at a campaign meeting on Monday, telling the central government in Madrid that his party would win the elections.

"I am very sorry I can not be with you now," he said to the applause of the members of his pro-independence party Junts per Catalunya, which organized the demonstration.

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