A BELGIAN judge has conditionally released sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and four of his ministers.

The group is now expected to appear in court within 15 days, prosecutors in Belgium said.

Puigdemont – along with his former agriculture minister Meritxell Serret; Antoni Comin, the former health minister; Lluis Puig (culture); and ex-education minister and St Andrews academic Clara Ponsati – handed themselves in to Belgian police yesterday, accompanied by their lawyers.

It followed the issuing by Spain of a European Arrest Warrant, accusing them of rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust following the October 1 Catalan independence referendum, which a Spanish court had ruled illegal.

Under the conditions of their release, the five cannot leave Belgium without a judge’s consent.

In a statement, prosecutors said: “The next step in the proceedings is the appearance of the five defendants before the Chambre du Conseil within the next 15 days.”

Belgium has up to 60 days to return the five to Spain under the European warrant.

Earlier, Catalan sources in contact with the president told The National the five had turned themselves in “because they trust Belgian justice and they are not runaways. They simply do not trust ‘Spanish justice’”.

Puigdemont and some of his Cabinet — all of whom were sacked by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — fled to Belgium when Rajoy imposed direct rule on Catalonia.

All are facing charges of rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, disobedience and breach of trust following the October 1 independence referendum, which a Spanish court has ruled illegal.

He said he was not seeking asylum, but also suggested that he would not return to Spain unless he could be guaranteed a fair trial.

However, late yesterday Catalan sources in contact with the president told The National: “They handed themselves in because they trust Belgian justice and they are not runaways.

“They simply do not trust ‘Spanish justice’.”

A senior Belgian cabinet member has cautioned that the international community must keep a close eye on Spain to ensure Puigdemont gets fair legal treatment in Madrid.

Jan Jambon, the Belgian vice-premier and interior minister, told the VTM network: “I am just questioning how an EU member state can go this far — and I am asking myself where Europe is to have an opinion on this.”

Belgium has been one of the most outspoken critics of Rajoy’s handling of the Catalan crisis and has already condemned the levels of violence used by the Guardia Civil and state police to try to stop the referendum.

Jambon added: “You have Spanish law but also international law, the European Human Rights Treaty and such things, and they come ahead of member state law.

“So, I think the international community must keep a close watch.”

If a country feels that extradition under an EU arrest warrant would violate the human rights of a suspect, it can reject the warrant.

Discrimination on the basis of an individual’s politics, religion or race is grounds for refusal, along with fears that the suspect would not get a fair trial, which is what Puigdemont has consistently claimed.

Dejemeppe said the judge’s options included “refusal to execute the European arrest, arresting the people involved, or releasing them on conditions or under bail”.

He added that if they were arrested they would be sent to jail as the extradition process continued.

However, he said the entire process could take more than 60 days, which would give Puigdemont time to participate, from a distance, in the snap election called by Rajoy for December 21.

A senior official of Puigdemont’s party, the Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCAT), said yesterday that they wanted him to be their candidate.

The Spanish Government has already said that any politician can run in the election unless he or she has been convicted of a crime.

Meanwhile, an opinion poll published by Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper forecast a tight race between pro- and anti-independence parties in the election.

The survey of 1233 people found pro-indy parties ERC, PDeCAT and CUP would take between 66 and 69 seats in the 135-seat parliament.

A second poll, in the conservative newspaper La Razon, also showed pro-independence parties would capture the most votes, although it said they would be just short of a parliamentary majority with 65 seats.

More support for Catalonia came last night from Solidarity, which said it believed Catalans should be free to choose whether or not they become an independent country.

In a statement, the party said: “We believe the referendum results, especially while encountering violence, clearly states the support for independence from the Catalans and should be respected by the Spanish Government.”