The Spanish Supreme Court on Thursday dropped sedition charges against former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont over a failed 2017 independence bid that sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
But the court maintained lesser charges of misuse of public funds and disobedience against Puigdemont, who lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain and holds a seat in the European Parliament.
The move follows a reform of Spain's criminal code in December that abolished the offence of sedition and replaced it with the charge of public disorder, which carries softer penalties.
The reform -- fiercely opposed by the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) -- also lowered the penalty for misuse of public funds.
Both offences were used against Catalan leaders who staged a 2017 independence referendum deemed illegal by the courts, followed by a unilateral declaration of independence for the wealthy northeast region.
Puigdemont, who headed the Catalan government at the time of the independence push, now potentially faces a shorter prison term if he is convicted than was the case before the sedition charge was dropped.
- Controversial reform -
Speaking in Brussels late Thursday, Puigdemont said he would not return to Spain until the question of his immunity was resolved by the European justice system, insisting he would never appear before a Spanish judge "in handcuffs".
The Supreme Court in 2019 sentenced former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras to 13 years behind bars for sedition and misuse of public funds for his role in the separatist push.
Since taking power in June 2018, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has sought to defuse the conflict in Catalonia.
In 2021, he pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were convicted over their roles in the separatist push.
Analysts say the criminal code reform, which came into effect on Thursday, is part of an attempt to win support in vote-rich Catalonia ahead of Spain's general election later this year.
It is also seen as a bid to assure the continued support of Catalan separatist party ERC for Sanchez's minority government in tight parliamentary votes.
- 'Red carpet' -
The main opposition PP has denounced the reform as "tailor-made for convicts". Some of Sanchez's own Socialists have also been critical.
Top PP official Elias Bendodo on Thursday accused Sanchez of "laying out the red carpet" for Puigdemont's return.
But the government's main spokesperson, Isabel Rodriguez, defended the reform, saying it brought Spanish law in line with European norms.
Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after the failed independence bid. He became a member of the European Parliament in June 2019.
Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena said Thursday he would submit a new extradition request to Belgian authorities for Puigdemont to face trial on the lesser charges, pending EU courts' rulings on whether Puigdemont has immunity as a European lawmaker.
Belgium has so far denied Spain's extradition request for Puigdemont, and it was not clear how having the charge of sedition dropped would affect the chances of him being sent back by Belgian officials.
Puigdemont's lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, told reporters he was "convinced" his client would soon be able to return to Spain, adding he expected European courts would confirm he has immunity at the end of February or in March.