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Judge refuses to free four Catalan leaders as elections near

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image Oriol Junqueras hopes to lead his ERC party, which is ahead in the polls, to victory on December 21

Catalonia's sacked vice president Oriol Junqueras and three other separatist leaders will remain in prison during a probe over their role in the region's independence drive, a Spanish judge decided Monday, as critical Catalan elections approach.

Six other former ministers who were also remanded in custody last month will be released on bail of 100,000 euros ($119,000) each as an investigation into charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds continues, the Madrid court said in a statement.

The decision comes as axed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont attended an extradition hearing in Belgium, where he escaped to after his region's parliament declared independence on October 27, claiming he would not get a fair trial at home.

Spain is seeking to have Puigdemont and four of his former ministers who fled with him sent back to face charges over their role in the independence drive.

The Belgian judge will decide on December 14 whether to grant the European arrest warrant, their lawyers said after the hearing.

- 'Political price' -

The ruling that Junqueras, former regional interior minister Joaquim Forn and two civil society leaders will stay in prison comes as the official campaign for Catalan elections on December 21 kicks off at midnight.

Madrid called the new elections after the independence declaration, while dismissing Catalonia's government and suspending the region's autonomy.

After receiving a request to free the 10 Catalan leaders, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena decided there was a risk that Junqueras and three others would repeat their alleged offences if released.

The news sparked outrage among independence supporters.

Marta Rovira, Junqueras's deputy in his ERC party, said the four were "paying a political price for the success of October 1," referring to an independence referendum that took place despite a court ban.

Junqueras "is in prison because they know he is the best candidate for the future of this country," she added.

Madrid hopes the elections will "restore normality" to the wealthy northeastern region, which declared independence following the referendum, though this never materialised.

Puigdemont, Junqueras and other former ministers are candidates for the elections.

This means the campaign will take an unprecedented turn, with candidates either in "exile" or in prison.

Separatist parties have repeatedly accused Madrid of taking "political prisoners" and "repression," and the decision to keep some Catalan leaders in jail is likely to magnify those claims.

But Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said the politicians were in jail "because the committed serious crimes, not because they are political prisoners."

- Separatist bloc divided -

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.

A poll carried out in November by the central government's influential Sociological Research Centre (CIS) predicted that the three pro-independence parties would get only up to 67 parliamentary seats out of 135, just under the absolute majority of 68.

In 2015 those same parties won 72 seats, which allowed them to form the largest bloc in the region's parliament. But this time around, pro-independence parties are running on separate lists.

The poll showed parties that back Spanish unity would capture 68-69 seats.

Junqueras hopes to lead his ERC, which is ahead in the polls, to victory on December 21.

Puigdemont launched his campaign last month from Brussels with a flurry of high-profile media appearances and a demand that he be returned as the "legitimate" president of Catalonia.

His lawyer said at the weekend that he would remain in Belgium until after the Catalan elections, which indicates he will campaign from there.

Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso said the decision to keep the four separatist leaders in jail "will certainly help the separatists to focus their messaging on the alleged repression by Spanish authorities, rather than on any prospective policy issues."

"The hope is that this will keep separatist voters mobilised, as low turnout motivated by exhaustion with the pro-independence process is the main fear of separatist parties," he added.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and fellow opponents of Catalan independence, meanwhile, have hitched their hopes on a record turnout on December 21 to return a legislature in favour of unity with Spain.

The CIS opinion poll, in which 3,000 people were interviewed in Catalonia, said just over 90 percent of those questioned were completely certain to vote in the elections, while five percent would "probably" go.

About 29 percent of eligible voters, however, are still undecided as to whom they will elect.




Belgian judge to decide on Puigdemont extradition Dec. 14


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