Spain's Supreme Court has withdrawn its international warrant for Carles Puigdemont, the ousted Catalan leader.
Puigdemont and four other former Catalan ministers have been fighting their extradition from Belgium. The ruling leaves to the defendants the decision whether to return to Spain.
The Associated Press reports that the five are facing charges of sedition, rebellion and embezzlement related to their roles in staging an independence referendum in October that Spain declared illegal.
Judge Pablo Llarena made clear that he didn't want the five to be prosecuted for lesser crimes than the others who are charged but didn't leave the country, The Guardian reports:
"Llarena said he had been moved to act after becoming aware of a discrepancy between Belgian and Spanish law that would limit the charges under which the Catalans could be extradited and therefore be charged on their return.
"Sources in Brussels believe Puigdemont's lawyer was preparing to argue that the definitions in Belgian law for the crimes of sedition and rebellion are different to those on the Spanish statute books. Extradition through the European arrest warrant in most cases requires 'double criminality', meaning the crimes must exist in the statutes of both countries. ...
"He said the crime was 'perpetrated in concert by all those under investigation' and therefore all the defendants must be treated as a single, unified group."
In all, 20 former Catalan leaders face charges, with possible sentences of up to 30 years in prison, The New York Times reports.
The five arrived in Belgium a month ago, saying they could not get a fair trial in Spain. Puigdemont has a campaign rally for 20,000 Catalans planned in Brussels on Thursday, according to the Times. The newspaper notes that the former leader's presence has complicated things for Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who wants to preserve his country's relationship with Spain while considering the interests of the Flemish separatist party that's part of his governing coalition.
The exiled Catalans still face national arrest warrants in Spain and expect to be arrested if they return there. The judge noted that the five had "shown a willingness to return to Spain to assume elected office" so would not need extradition, according to the Guardian. Puigdemont says he plans to stay in Belgium for the time being, though his rival Oriol Junqueras is in prison in Madrid. If Puigdemont stays in Belgium, notes the Guardian, "he risks ceding the moral high ground to Junqueras."
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ordered regional elections taking place on Dec. 21, "to restore democracy."