Bartomeu provisionally set free after spending night in jail

MADRID (AP) — Former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was provisionally set free on Tuesday after appearing before a judge following a night in jail while being investigated for possible irregularities during his administration.

Court officials said Bartomeu and his former adviser at the Spanish club, Jaume Masferrer, used their right not to make any comments in court.

Bartomeu, Masferrer and two other club officials were arrested on Monday after Catalan police raided Barcelona’s headquarters in a search and seizure operation related to last year’s “Barçagate.” In that case, the club was accused of launching a smear campaign against current and former players who were critical of then-president Bartomeu and others.

The club itself has not been charged but Bartomeu was not cleared. Court officials lifted the case’s secrecy and those accused will have access to the evidence gathered by authorities before appearing in court again.

The arrests came less than a week before the club holds presidential elections, and added to the turmoil surrounding the team recently.

“Every club has its difficult moments,” said Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman, who took over after the club’s crisis erupted following the team’s 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. “It’s true that a lot has happened, but we remain motivated and will keep fighting to win titles.

“It obvious that this is not good for the image of the club,” said Koeman, who was hired by Bartomeu. “We have to wait and see what happens. All we can do is to focus on our job.”

Barcelona is coming off its first season without a trophy since 2007-08. The team lost to Paris Saint-Germain 4-1 in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League last week, and on Wednesday will try to reverse a 2-0 first-leg loss to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semifinals. The Catalan club is five points off the lead in the Spanish league.

Barcelona, which could also lose Lionel Messi after his contract ends this season, has been led by a caretaker board since the 58-year-old Bartomeu and his board of directors resigned in October while facing a no-confidence vote. He had been loudly criticized by Messi, whose request to leave the club last season was denied by the then-president.

The Spanish club has a debt of more than 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“What worries me the most is the club’s institutional instability, not its financial difficulty,” Spanish league president Javier Tebas said. “When a new president is elected I’m certain that the club will overcome this situation.”

Members of the police’s financial crimes department conducted the operation in five different locations on Monday, including Bartomeu’s house. Authorities said they were investigating “alleged crimes related to property and socio-economic order.”

Barcelona had denied accusations that it hired — and overpaid — a company to make negative comments about its own players and opponents on social media in order to boost the image of senior club officials. The company was accused of using fake social media accounts to discredit opposition figures, a list said to include Messi, Gerard Piqué and former coach Pep Guardiola, when they expressed views that went against the club.

The club released an independent audit report showing there was no wrongdoing.

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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