Immunity lifted: defeat for Puigdemont

Dhe former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont suffered a political defeat on Tuesday. In the evening, the Committee on Legal Affairs in the European Parliament lifted its immunity, as did that of its former ministers Antoni Comín and Clara Ponsatí. 15 MPs voted for the waiver of immunity, eight against and two abstained. The three Catalan politicians thus lost the most effective protection against extradition to Spain, where they face long prison terms. However, they have already announced that they want to appeal the decision to the European Court of Justice. And the Belgian judiciary would first have to approve an extradition.

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

Hans-Christian Roessler

In the European Parliament, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, National Conservatives and some of the Liberals supported the motion of the Spanish Supreme Court. They argued that the three Catalans are charged with offenses dating back to before they joined the Strasbourg house. In such cases, it is customary to lift immunity – without evaluating a case’s content.

Rejection of the left and the greens

Left and Greens rejected this, however. The green right-wing politician Sergej Lagodinsky gave the FAZ two reasons for this. On the one hand, the rapporteur responsible for the proceedings did not check whether the Spanish court was even entitled to request the waiver of immunity. On the other hand, “we consider this to be disproportionate because colleagues are being persecuted for exercising their freedom of expression and are threatened with high prison sentences”.

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The plenary session is expected to follow the committee’s recommendation in early March. However, the three Catalans are likely to be protected from prosecution for a long time due to the following legal proceedings. You yourself argue that the Spanish court does not have jurisdiction – but Parliament’s legal service has contradicted this. They also consider the charges brought against them in Spain to be unfounded and see themselves as victims of a campaign of revenge by the Spanish judiciary, which is supposed to prevent them from exercising their political mandate.

Puigdemont can move freely across Europe

Spain has been trying to extradite Puigdemont for more than three years. At the end of October 2017, the then regional president went to Brussels in a night and fog and surrendered to the judicial authorities there. However, they let him go again. While most of his comrades-in-arms in Spain are now serving long prison sentences, Puigdemont can move freely throughout Europe and even run for the European Parliament and the Catalan regional parliament from abroad. Only in Spain is he facing immediate arrest. At the same time, several European arrest warrants were issued and revoked.

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The current European arrest warrant was issued by the Supreme Court in Madrid in October 2019 as part of the verdict in the trial against leading Catalan separatists. At the time, the judges recognized “sedición” in unity with the embezzlement of taxpayers’ money in the organization of the referendum on the independence of Catalonia on October 1, 2017, which the judiciary and government had declared illegal. These allegations are also the basis for the European arrest warrant against Puigdemont. There is also a national and an international arrest warrant against him.

After Puigdemont and his former Health Minister Comín took up their mandates in the European Parliament in January 2020, the President of the Supreme Court, Carlos Lesmes, asked for the immunity of the two Catalans to be lifted. Clara Ponsatí was one of the 27 MPs who moved into parliament after Brexit at the beginning of February.

Arrested in 2018 while passing through Germany

Earlier Spanish extradition requests for Catalan separatists had not been obeyed by courts in Belgium, Germany and Scotland because they did not recognize the initial charge of “rebellion”. In 2019 the Supreme Court also ruled that the “episodes of violence” that had occurred before and after the 2017 referendum were not serious enough to be convicted of rebellion. The higher regional court in Schleswig had already ruled in July 2018 that Puigdemont could only be extradited to Spain for embezzlement, but not for rebellion or riot. The level of violence necessary for the comparable German crime of high treason did not exist in Catalonia.

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Puigdemont was arrested on the basis of a European arrest warrant in March 2018 while passing through Germany. In the event of an extradition, the Spanish judiciary would have been bound by the German decision and Puigdemont could then only have been prosecuted in Spain for embezzlement. The Supreme Court then withdrew the European arrest warrant against him and five other fellow campaigners. Puigdemont returned to Brussels, where he still exerts a remote influence on Catalan politics today, but hardly participates in legislation in the European Parliament.

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