Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has taken his seat as a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg despite facing an arrest warrant against him in Spain.
The former Catalan president and new EU legislator is bent on using the parliament as a platform to continue his political fight for an independent Catalonia breaking away from Spain.
His parliamentary position also gives him immunity.
Puigdemont used the opening session of the plenary to demand the immediate release from a Spanish jail of another Catalan leader who was elected to the European Parliament, former Catalonia vice president Oriol Junqueras.
He waved a yellow poster demanding “Free Junqueras” in his first act as a parliamentarian.
“He should be here with us. He has the same rights,” Puigdemont said earlier.
His ability to have such exposure at the heart of the European Union to decry such issues as imprisonment in Spain is a blow to the central authorities in Madrid, who have steadfastly sought to blunt the drive to give the wealthy north-eastern region independence.
Left-leaning parties have just formed a Spanish minority government which is dependent on the tacit support of a more moderate Catalan party.
Puigdemont arrived at the legislature in the early afternoon, cheered by a few hundred supporters who had more than a dozen Catalan flags fluttering in the midday winds outside the legislature in north-eastern France.
“Puigdemont president,” they shouted in unison.
Puigdemont arrived together with fellow EU legislator and former Catalan minister Toni Comin.
Spain tried to ban us, he said, “but today we are here, finally”.
The two are wanted in Spain for their role in an illegal 2017 secession bid by the Catalan government and separatist politicians.
They fled in exile to Belgium after the attempt failed and were elected to the European Parliament in May as representatives of Catalan separatist parties from Spain.
The regional Catalan coalition government was also in Strasbourg in support, demanding that all three elected politicians should be in Strasbourg, including Junqueras.
“Three MEPs … were elected for the European elections by some two million European citizens and these citizens have the right of representation,” Alfred Bosch, the foreign minister of the regional Catalan government, said of Junqueras.
A Spanish court sentenced Junqueras in October to 13 years in prison for sedition.
“He has the same rights as we have,” said Puigdemont.
“He got more than a million votes. Freedom was not respected.”
The European Parliament said it was legally bound not to give the convicted Junqueras a seat.