MADRID: A virtual political unknown when he was first elected leader Catalonia 2016, Carles Puigdemont became the face of the region’s independence movement when he led a referendum the following year on breaking away from Spain. The 58-year-old former journalist has lived in exile in Belgium since the 2017 referendum, wanted by Spain accused of rebellion. He was arrested on arrival in the Italian island of Sardinia on Thursday and is expected to appear in court on Friday in a trial that could cause him to be extradited to Spain after four years as a refugee. Born in Amer, a small mountainous village with 2,200 inhabitants in Catalonia, the second of eight siblings, Puigdemont soon proved to be a strong separatist. He never hid his breakaway tendencies, not even when he joined the conservative CDC party in 1980 at a time when it only wanted to negotiate greater autonomy for Catalonia, rather than a full break from Spain. “In Catalonia, many people became separatists in an allergic reaction to Madrid’s policies. Not him, he always had these beliefs,” said Antoni Puigverd, a poet and journalist who knew Puigdemont, in 2019. For 17 years, Puigdemont worked for the region’s nationalist daily El Punt and was also mayor of the city of Girona, a separatist stronghold, from 2011 to 2016. Puigdemont, who was the father of two, was elected to the Catalan Presidency in 2016 with a mandate to lead it to independence. He was unknown outside self-governing circles, and he was drawn into the global spotlight in October 2017 when his executive held a banned referendum on self-determination, intimidated by police violence, followed by a brief declaration of independence. Madrid immediately dismissed Puigdemont and his executive, dissolved the regional parliament, called quick local elections, and imposed direct control of the semi-autonomous, rich northeastern region. The central government declared the result of the vote illegal and Puigdemont was forced to flee to Belgium, where he has since lived to avoid prosecution. “To all those who wanted to humiliate us, to silence us, I tell them that we will defend ourselves,” he said in exile. Activists and Catalan “ministers” near Puigdemont were arrested and sentenced to prison for the 2019 uprising during a trial held without him. Nine were pardoned in June by the current Prime Minister’s government Pedro Sanchez. Although Puigdemont was sometimes described by his opponents as “volatile” or “cowardly”, he has continued to be involved in politics with his party Together for Catalonia, as well as being elected to I P year 2019. His replacement as Catalan leader, Pere Aragones, is considered a more moderate independence activist and his service has seen relations between Barcelona and Madrid become less tough.