Spanish judge withdraws arrest warrant for Catalan leaders

Protesters hold the lights of their mobile phones as they wave Estelada flags during a demonstration called by pro-independence associations asking for the release of jailed Catalan activists and leaders in Barcelona Spain. REUTERS  Albert Gea

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.

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.

However, the vote is shaping up as a plebiscite between those for and against independence, with polls predicting a close race.

The former leader of the Catalonia government, Carles Puigdemont, and four of his disbanded cabinet, are in self-imposed exile in Belgium under conditional release after an worldwide arrest warrant was served against them.

The conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked an unprecedented constitutional power to suspend Catalan autonomy and dismiss its leaders.

His former deputy Oriol Junqueras, one of those detained following the independence declaration, and who could be released on bail as early as Monday, hopes to see his ERC party, which is leading polls, to victory on December 21.

Campaigning officially begins at midnight on Monday, and in the hours before that moment Catalan pro-independence groups hope to stage protests in front of town halls across the region against the Supreme Court's decision on the detained separatists.

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Junqueras, who was removed as Catalonia's vice president by the Spanish government along with other top officials, is leading the ERC party's ticket in the December 21 election.

Mr Junqueras and the other jailed politicians pledged last week to give up on efforts to seek unilateral independence for the wealthy northeastern region, in the hope of being freed.

The prosecution, as well as those being prosecuted, have the right to appeal the final decision.

Rovira said the jailing "is a very clear attempt to win these elections without political adversaries".

"Those who commit criminal acts must place themselves at the mercy of legal rulings", Mr Zoido said.

A government-commissioned poll says that pro-independence parties will lose their slim majority in the Catalan parliament in elections later this month, foreshadowing a complicated route to post-election deals to form a new government. It had ERC, Together for Catalonia and the far-left anti-establishment CUP party winning 66 or 67 of the parliament's 135 seats. Four Catalan activists and officials - including former Vice President Oriol Junqueras - are behind bars in provisional detention pending an investigation on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

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