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Sacked Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont appeared in court in Belgium on Friday for a hearing on whether to send him back to Spain to face charges of rebellion and sedition over his region’s independence drive.

Madrid issued a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and four of his former ministers after they fled to Brussels last month and ignored a summons to appear before a Spanish judge, claiming they would not get a fair trial.

A judge in Brussels will hear arguments behind closed doors from prosecutors and lawyers for the Catalan separatists over Spain’s extradition request in the first round of what could become a protracted courtroom battle, with both sides expected to appeal if they lose.

This could leave Puigdemont and his cadres still in Belgium when Catalonia goes to the polls on December 21 for an election ordered by Madrid to “restore normality” to the wealthy northeastern region.

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“We are going to ask the Belgian judge to respect fundamental EU rights,” Michele Hirsch, a lawyer for two of the ex-ministers, told AFP.

“The act of organising a referendum is not a matter for criminal law. It is clearly a political opinion that is being targeted, and the peaceful and democratic execution of a series of events linked to that opinion,” she said.

An aide to Puigdemont told journalists he had arrived at the Palace of Justice in Brussels shortly before the scheduled 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) start of the hearing.

Puigdemont’s self-imposed exile is proving a headache for Belgium, whose fragile coalition government includes Flemish nationalists sympathetic to the Catalan cause.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel met his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy on the sidelines of an EU summit on Friday in Gothenburg, Sweden, though sources said they talked about “the future of the EU” and other issues — not Catalonia.

On Thursday night Puigdemont had dinner at the home of a politician from the Flemish separatist N-VA party.

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