Independence supporters have held huge protests in Catalonia in recent weeks - but polls suggest they may not win an overall majority in the December 21 ballot

Madrid (AFP) - Spain dropped its European arrest warrant on Tuesday for Catalonia’s sacked leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his deputies who fled to Belgium, but will arrest the separatists if they return, the nation’s top court said.

In a surprise move, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena withdrew the warrant as the five “appear to have shown their intention to return to Spain” to take part in the snap regional polls on December 21.

Madrid called the election after Catalan lawmakers declared independence in October, bringing to a head Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

But the judge has retained the Spanish arrest warrant, which means they will be detained upon arrival in the country, the court said.

Paul Bekaert, one of the deposed Catalan president’s lawyers, told Belgium’s L’Echo daily he would “not leave Belgium.”

The judge said the European warrant would complicate the overall probe into the region’s leaders.

Some of them are still in Spain – either in jail or out on bail – and all are facing charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

He said Belgium could reject some of the charges in the warrant, meaning it could agree to the extradition of Puigdemont and the four others – but with restrictions, and only for certain offences.

This in turn would stop Spain from prosecuting the restricted offences, thereby creating inequalities with those already held in Spain who would be probed on the full charges, Llarena argued.

It is unclear what charges would have posed a problem, but there has been controversy in Spain over the offence of rebellion, which carries up to 30 years in jail and has been criticised as “disproportionate” by some critics in the legal world.

Belgian prosecutors said a judge would now officially end the extradition proceedings.

- Electioneering -

Carles Puigdemont and another 11 of his sacked colleagues are running in the upcoming regional elections

The unexpected decision comes a day after Puigdemont and his four colleagues attended an extradition hearing in Brussels, with the Belgian judge due to give a decision on December 14.

Jaume Alonso Cuevillas, one of Puigdemont’s lawyers, told Catalonia’s TV3 channel he was pleasantly surprised.

“This means yesterday’s hearing went much better than we thought. It pushed Spain’s judicial authorities to withdraw the European warrant to avoid getting a slap from Belgian judicial authorities,” he said.

“The real reason is the fear the extradition would be refused because a fair trial is not guaranteed.”

The decision also comes after the Catalan election campaign kicked off, with Puigdemont speaking to supporters in Catalonia on Monday night via video link.

The Madrid authorities “want to raise as many difficulties as possible so we can’t campaign on an equal footing with the other candidates,” he told a party rally in Barcelona.

Madrid called the new elections after the independence declaration on October 27, while dismissing Catalonia’s government and suspending the region’s autonomy. It hopes the polls will restore normality to the region.

Twelve of the 13 members of the sacked Catalan government are standing in the election, with Puigdemont and his deputy Oriol Junqueras – who is still in jail – competing to head the separatist camp.

- A house divided -

In the last regional election in 2015, separatist parties captured 47.8 percent of the vote, giving them an absolute majority of 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan regional parliament.

A poll published Monday by the central government’s Sociological Research Centre (CIS) predicted the three pro-independence parties would get 44.4 percent of the vote and 66 to 67 seats this time – just short of the absolute majority of 68.

The three parties firmly opposed to independence would get 44.3 percent and gain 59 to 60 seats, the poll suggested.

While the separatists are united against what they say is “repression” from Madrid, they are divided over the future of their region, which itself is deeply split over independence.

Puigdemont’s PDeCAT party and Junqueras’ ERC ran on a joint list two years ago but are running separately this time around.