Campaigning begins in Catalan in election as four separatists kept in jail

Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont appears on a giant screen during an event of his political platform 'Junts per Catalunya' to mark the official start of the electoral campaign for the Catalan regional election in Barcelona.

Campaigning has begun in the regional elections called by Spain's government seeking to quash the Catalan independence movement - with some candidates either in jail or out of the country to avoid arrest.

The highly polarised Catalan parliament elections are due to take place on December 21 and are shaping up as a close fight between Catalans who support secession and those who favour remaining in Spain.

Voters are choosing regional representatives and top government officials to replace those removed by the national government in late October.

Hours before pro-secession parties held evening rallies to launch their campaigns, a Supreme Court judge in Madrid ruled that four prominent members of the region's independence movement must remain jailed without bail.

They include former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who heads the slate of the left-republican ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) party.

Mr Junqueras was unseated in late October along with former President Carles Puigdemont and the rest of Mr Puigdemont's Cabinet after regional politicians passed a declaration of independence that Spanish authorities deemed illegal.

Six other Catalan politicians who had been jailed with Mr Junqueras since early November were released late on Monday after the posting of 100,000-euro (£88,000) bail set earlier for them by a Supreme Court judge.

Meanwhile, Mr Puigdemont and four of his separatist allies learned on Monday that a decision on Spain's request for their extraditions from Belgium will be made on December 14, a week before the elections.

However, a final decision may not come until well after the poll because of appeals.

The five Catalan officials fled to Belgium and are refusing to return to Spain to face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement over the push for independence. The charges carry maximum penalties of decades in prison.

Mr Puigdemont's Belgian defence lawyer, Paul Bekaert, insisted there are no grounds for extradition because the Spanish charges were not punishable in Belgium.

"We also highlighted the danger for the impediment of their human rights in Spain," Mr Bekaert said.

Hours after the judge postponed deciding his fate, Mr Puigdemont addressed a political rally in Catalonia via video conference at the official midnight kickoff of the campaign.

He told the other candidates running for his Together for Catalonia list that the vote should be "the second part" of the referendum that his government held on secession October 1 despite it being banned by Spain's highest court.

"The results of October 1 are still valid," Mr Puigdemont told Catalan public television TV3. "There are many of us who don't give the Spanish government the authority to dissolve a legitimate legislature."

The Spanish government has said the early election is an attempt to find a democratic way out of the nation's worst crisis in nearly four decades. Polls predict a close race between the pro- and anti-independence camps.

A government-run poll published on Monday indicated that pro-independence parties would lose their slim majority in Catalonia's parliament.

It had ERC, Together for Catalonia and the far-left anti-establishment CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) party winning 66 or 67 of the parliament's 135 seats.


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