Former Catalan leaders have condemned demands by Spain’s court of auditors to repay €5.4m in regional government funds that it alleged they wrongly used to promote independence.

A statement issued by 41 officials, including former heads and ministers of the Catalan government, said the court demands contravened their constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Their condemnation came as Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, prepared to meet Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s new pro-independence regional head, for the first time later on Tuesday.

Sánchez hopes to improve relations with the Catalan administration and last week pardoned nine jailed separatist leaders. But the audit court demands risk undermining his appeal for “dialogue and understanding” over the independence dispute.

Campaigning by separatist leaders led to an illegal referendum in 2017 followed by a shortlived declaration of independence. A number of separatist leaders were sentenced to long jail terms while others fled Spain.

Aragonès has said he would request an official referendum on independence and an amnesty for separatists under investigation. Sánchez, who has faced fierce criticism of the pardons from his opponents on the right, has rejected the demands.

The audit court, which is not part of the judiciary, is responsible for controlling Spain’s public accounts. It answers directly to parliament, the lower and upper houses of which appoint its 12 members. It has the power to seize assets if its payment demands are not met.

The court has previously said the former officials illegally used public money between 2011-2017 to advance the cause of Catalan independence internationally. This included travel costs and the setting up of at least 16 “embassies” overseas.

On Tuesday, it began informing the former officials individually of the sums of money they were required to deposit against the repayments demanded.

Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s former deputy leader and the most prominent of the pardoned separatists, has been ordered to repay €1.9m, according to Spanish media reports.

Carles Puigdemont, a former head of the Catalan government who fled to Belgium after the independence declaration, has also been ordered to repay €1.9m, the media reports said.

Puigdemont on Tuesday wrote on Twitter that his lawyer had been given only three hours to read 500 pages of court documents and 10 minutes to put his case.

The ruling from the court, including the repayment demands, is expected to be published as early as Wednesday.

Andreu Mas-Colell, 76, a former Catalan finance minister, also faces a court demand for a large repayment. A former Harvard economics professor, he has received the support of 53 economists, including 33 Nobel laureates, who last week wrote a letter urging the Spanish state not to impose a large fine on him.

His son, Gabriel Mas, told the Financial Times: “In the next 15 days, Andreu will have to deposit a guarantee of €670,000-€2.8m as the result of an administrative decision in which not a single judge has participated.”