The Spanish Supreme Court has taken the first steps to secure the extradition of former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, who led an illegal attempt to secede from Spain in 2017.
In a vote held on Monday but made public on Tuesday, the European Parliament voted to lift Puigdemont’s immunity, with 400 votes in favor, 248 against and 45 abstentions. There were very similar votes in connection with Antoni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, two Puigdemont aides who fled Spain with him following an unauthorized referendum on independence held on October 1, 2017.
Without parliamentary immunity, all three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) could face extradition to Spain, where they are wanted by the Spanish justice system in connection with the illegal referendum and breakaway bid.
The next legal moves are now in the hands of courts in Belgium (in the case of Puigdemont and Comín) and the UK (in the case of Ponsatí, who fled to Scotland, although lately, she has been residing in Belgium).
In a bid to secure the extradition of the MEPs, Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena – who headed the main case into the separatist leaders – asked the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for a preliminary ruling on how an extradition order for the MEPs should be interpreted by EU law.
The goal of this move – made just hours after the vote was made public – is to get guidance on what next steps should be taken, and more importantly, to reduce the possibility of the Belgium justice system rejecting a European arrest warrant for sedition and misuse of public funds against Puigdemont, and his former aides Comín and Ponsatí (who is only wanted for sedition). These warrants were placed on hold in early 2020, when the Catalan politicians became members of the EU Parliament and gained immunity.
Llarena said there are no “objective” reasons to insinuate that Spain will violate the fundamental rights of the separatist leaders
In January, the Belgian courts refused to extradite another former member of Puigdemont’s cabinet, Lluís Puig. The Belgian justice system justified this decision on two grounds: first, that the Spanish Supreme Court lacked the authority to request the extradition and try Puig, arguing that this must be done by a Catalan court; and second, that there were no guarantees that the Supreme Court would respect the fundamental rights of the separatist leader, such as the presumption of innocence.
The refusal to extradite Puig sounded alarm bells in the Supreme Court, prompting Judge Llarena to request advice from the CJEU. In the document, Llarena raises nine questions regarding how a judge issuing a European arrest warrant should act, the role the Belgian justice system plays in executing these orders and the possibility that these courts will reject the request. The judge specifically asks the CJEU if Belgian courts “can question the authority” of the court that issues the order – in this case, the Spanish Supreme Court – as happened in Puig’s extradition case. Llarena opposed the arguments from Belgian courts that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to request Puig’s extradition, and now hopes that the CLEU will support his position.
“The criminal system and process of another state must indeed be poorly trusted if the first thing that the acting state tries to do is cast doubt on its authority to issue a cooperative instrument based precisely on trust and reciprocal cooperation,” Llarena warned, adding that there are no “objective” reasons to insinuate that Spain will violate the fundamental rights of the separatist leaders.
Once the European arrest warrants are reactivated, the Supreme Court, in principle, will wait for a response from the Belgian courts. Legal sources say that Llarena’s request for a preliminary ruling does not mean that the Belgian justice system has to stop processing the arrest warrants, although such a decision would make sense given that the CJEU’s response may force it to change its arguments.
If Belgium decides to go ahead without waiting for the response from the CJEU and refuses to hand over Puigdemont and his aides, Llarena could issue a new European arrest warrant if the CJEU’s ruling supports his case.
Court revokes flexible prison regime for separatist leaders
A penitentiary court in Catalonia revoked on Tuesday the open prison regime granted to seven separatist leaders convicted for their involvement in the 2017 secession attempt. The decision affects former Catalan deputy premier Oriol Junqueras, ex-government ministers Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Raül Romeva and Joaquim Forn; and the leaders of the civil society groups Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart.
In January, the separatist leaders were granted a more flexible regime, known as tercer grado, or third grade, by the Catalan regional government. Under this regime, prisoners only have to spend nights in prison. The decision coincided with the Catalan regional elections, meaning the leaders were able to leave prison to campaign. It also came shortly after the Supreme Court revoked the open prison regime in December on the grounds that it was “premature.”
The public prosecution, upset by the Catalan government’s insistence on granting the flexible regime despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, appealed the decision. Its appeal was upheld by the penitentiary court on Tuesday, and all seven leaders, with the exception of Rull, who was granted a three-day prison leave, returned to prison.
English version by Melissa Kitson.