Catalan leader to defy court summons
A Spanish judge has ordered eight Catalan ministers to be remanded into custody pending a hearing on whether they should be charged with rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds.
Among those sought include Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont, who has gone into hiding in Belgium. Puigdemont's lawyer says he will resist extradition efforts by Spain, setting up a protracted court battle.
The state prosecutor's request for Puigdemont to be detained under the European arrest warrant (EAW) will initiate a procedure designed to speed up the handover of criminal suspects between EU states.
But any decision by a lower tribunal in Belgium can be appealed up through the higher courts, lengthening the legal process while straining relations between EU member states.
The aim of the EAW system was to do away with political interference in controversial extradition cases. It only requires that the criminal offence for which anyone is extradited must carry a maximum penalty of at least one year in prison in another EU state.
The categories of criminal offences covered are very broad and there is no legal precondition that an identical offence must exist in both of the countries involved. The EAW does not provide for refusal to extradite on the grounds that the suspect has claimed political asylum.
It does, however, allow a country to refuse to hand over a suspect on the grounds that he or she is being sought on the basis of their "sex, race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, language, political opinions or sexual orientation".
Might Puigdemont and the other Catalan ministers avoid extradition based on the notion that the Spanish government wants to prosecute them for their "political opinions"? Or perhaps their "ethnic origin"? An expert in E.U. extradition thinks it's possible.
Andrew Smith, an extradition specialist at the London law firm Corker Binning said: "If a Spanish European arrest warrant is issued for Mr Puigdemont and his former ministers, the key questions for the Belgian extradition court are likely to be whether the criminal allegations are politically motivated and whether the Spanish authorities are acting abusively.
"Mutual trust is a central tenet of how the European arrest warrant operates between EU member states, but this extraordinary case looks set to test the limits of that trust."
Given an inventive legal team, the process could, technically, be slowed by repeated appeals to higher courts. Julian Assange resisted a European arrest warrant in Britain for almost two years before fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he remains.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy must be confident in this course of action, considering the potential backlash in Catalonia against the incarceration of the political leadership. With opposition political parties and most of the country behind him – even a strong plurality of Catalans – Rajoy appears to have carte blanche for a serious crackdown.
But there are still questions about whether he is creating sympathy for the Catalan leadership, who haven't yet decided whether they will take part in the regional election scheduled for December 21. Puigdemont, regardless of whether he is in Spanish custody under indictment for charges related to the declaration of independence, may wish to challenge Spanish rule of Catalonia and run a full slate of pro-independence candidates. If that happens, Rajoy may discover he has overplayed his hand, as the severe crackdown underway may work to his disadvantage in the election.
For the immediate future, the fate of Catalan ministers will rest with the Belgian courts. Meanwhile, Catalonia remains calm. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across the region in a peaceful show of support for the jailed ministers. Obviously, it wouldn't take much to turn those peaceful protesters into rioters.
That's the risk Rajoy is running.