Oriol Junqueras hopes to lead his ERC party, which is ahead in the polls, to victory on December 21
Madrid (AFP) - 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.
Six other former ministers who were also remanded in custody last month were released on bail of 100,000 euros ($119,000) each as an investigation into charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds continues, the Madrid court said in a statement.
The bail was paid by a major grassroots secessionist group, the Catalan Nationalist Assembly.
It called for protests on Monday night in cities across Catalonia for the release of the other prisoners detained in a political crisis that has rattled Europe.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont meanwhile attended an extradition hearing on Monday in Belgium. He escaped there, claiming he would not get a fair trial at home, after his region's parliament declared independence on October 27.
Spain is seeking to have Puigdemont and four of his former ministers who fled with him sent back to face charges over their role in the independence drive.
The Belgian judge will decide on December 14 whether to uphold the European arrest warrant, their lawyers said after the hearing.
- 'Keep voters mobilised' -
The ruling that Junqueras, former regional interior minister Joaquim Forn and two civil society leaders must stay in prison came as the official campaign for Catalan elections on December 21 was due to kick off at midnight.
Madrid called the new elections after the independence declaration, while dismissing Catalonia's government and suspending the region's autonomy.
After receiving a request to free the 10 Catalan leaders, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena decided there was a risk that Junqueras and three others would repeat their alleged offences if released.
But Marta Rovira, Junqueras's deputy in his ERC party, said the decision was politically motivated. He was staying in prison "because they know he is the best candidate," she claimed.
Madrid hopes the elections will restore normality to the wealthy northeastern region, which declared independence in vain following the referendum.
Puigdemont, Junqueras and other former ministers are candidates for the elections, despite being in exile or prison.
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.
Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso said the decision to keep the four separatist leaders in jail "will certainly help the separatists to focus their messaging on the alleged repression by Spanish authorities, rather than on any prospective policy issues."
"The hope is that this will keep separatist voters mobilised, as low turnout motivated by exhaustion with the pro-independence process is the main fear of separatist parties," he added.
- Separatists' poll decline -
Catalans remain deeply split on independence, and several polls suggest pro-secession parties might struggle to win enough seats to form a new regional government.
A poll carried out in November by the central government's influential Sociological Research Centre (CIS) predicted that the three pro-independence parties would get only up to 67 parliamentary seats out of 135, just under the absolute majority of 68.
The poll showed parties that back Spanish unity would capture 68-69 seats.
Puigdemont launched his campaign last month from Brussels with a flurry of high-profile media appearances and a demand that he be returned as the "legitimate" president of Catalonia.
His lawyer said at the weekend that Puigdemont would remain in Belgium until after the Catalan elections.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and fellow opponents of Catalan independence, meanwhile, have hitched their hopes on a record turnout on December 21 to return a legislature in favour of unity with Spain.