Ex-Catalonia leader receives legal boost
MADRID: A German court ruled on Thursday that Catalonia’s former leader, Carles Puigdemont, can be extradited to Spain, but only on fraud charges and not for rebellion, the main charge he faced in Spain after Catalonia’s botched declaration of independence in 2017.
The decision is a setback for the Spanish judiciary, which had hoped the German court would allow Mr Puigdemont to stand trial on a rebellion charge, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.
Under the lesser charge of corruption related to the misuse of public money, Mr Puigdemont could still be sentenced to up to two years in prison, but such financial crime sentences are normally suspended in Spain for first-time offenders.
Mr Puigdemont is accused of misusing public money to organise an illegal independence referendum on Oct 1, when he was president of the restive region. Two dozen other Catalan politicians are also facing trial; some are being held in prison, while a handful of others are fighting extradition.
The German court’s decision is the latest twist in a complicated legal battle that gained an international dimension in October, when Mr Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain, alongside some other members of his former cabinet.
They left shortly after Madrid used emergency constitutional powers to oust Mr Puigdemont’s administration and place Catalonia under direct rule. In March, while travelling by car from Finland to Belgium, Mr Puigdemont was arrested by German police on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge.
In Thursday’s ruling, the German High Court of the state of Schleswig-Holstein also ruled that Mr Puigdemont did not represent a flight risk and therefore should not be taken into police custody before being sent back to Spain.
No date has been set for extradition, but it is expected to happen soon, according to Wiebke Hoffelner, a Schleswig-Holstein state prosecutor.
Mr Puigdemont could take the difficult route of lodging an appeal before Germany’s Constitutional Court, if his lawyers can convince the court that his basic human rights were violated. In a statement on Thursday, Mr Puigdemont’s lawyers said they were considering how to proceed.
Pablo Llarena, the Spanish Supreme Court judge who is presiding over the trial against Mr Puigdemont and other Catalan politicians, has said that Spain’s judiciary could take the case to the European Court of Justice if Germany blocked Mr Puigdemont’s extradition on the charges sought by Madrid. There was no immediate response from Mr Llarena to the German decision.
The court’s decision is in line with a preliminary ruling in April, which found that the rebellion charge could not be honoured in Germany “because evidence of ‘violence’ is not present”. Violence is a component of the charge in Spain’s legal code.
Since then, however, Spain’s political landscape has changed considerably. A Socialist government took office in Madrid in June, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. His predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, had vehemently opposed Catalonia’s separatist movement, and moved to block an effort to re-elect Mr Puigdemont as the region’s leader in May.
Mr Sanchez said on Thursday that his government respected judicial decisions. And although he did not weigh in on whether extradition on the rebellion charge should also have been allowed, he said at a news conference that Spanish society “expected the people involved in the events of the second half of 2017 to be judged by Spanish courts.” He added: “This will happen.”
Writing on Twitter, Mr Puigdemont welcomed the decision by the German court to strike down “the main lie of the state” by not recognising the independence referendum as an act of rebellion.
And Quim Torra, who leads a separatist coalition that formed a new Catalan regional government in June, called the German ruling “great news”. He added: “Today the fictitious narrative of the Spanish state has fallen apart.”
On Monday, Mr Torra visited Madrid to meet Mr Sanchez for the first time, an encounter that both men described as positive.
Puigdemont: Accused of misusing public money to organise a referendum.