The trial for Catalonian government officials began in Madrid on November 2. In the wake of what was called an illegal independence referendum, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy removed the entire Catalonian regional cabinet from office and subpoenaed them for questioning. However, Catalan President Carlos Puigdemont refused to leave Belgium, saying he wants to give himself up “to real justice [of Belgium], but not Spanish justice.”
The trial began in his absence, with eight of Puigdemont’s 13 cabinet ministers in attendance, including Deputy to the President, Oriol Junqueras. They were accused of sedition, rebellion, and breach of trust. Eight were jailed, facing sentences of up to 30 years. Catalan politicians and the civil society condemned these court decisions. Catalan parliament member Agusti Alcoberro said the politicians were political prisoners, tweeting, “Vice-president and ministers, we will not stop until we secure your freedom.”
Meanwhile, Puigdemont and four of his ministers chose to remain in Belgium, defying the Spanish government’s subpoena. Puigdemont says he plans to run his campaign for the Catalan elections in December from Belgium, and that he is ready to hand himself over to Belgian authorities but not to judicial officials in Spain. Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a member of European parliament, says that as a result, “There will likely be an extradition request to Belgium, and the Belgian police will detain him.”
Since Belgium and Spain are both members of the European Union, any extradition request between them would be a European Arrest Warrant (EAW). This procedure is designed to speed up the handover of criminal suspects between EU member states. The EAW system only requires that the criminal offense in question carry a penalty of at least one year, and it prohibits a nation’s refusal to hand over suspects unless they are being sought for their “sex, race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, language, political opinions or sexual orientation.”
Because of this clause, Belgian judges will likely have to decide whether Puigdemont is being pursued by Spanish authorities on the basis of his political beliefs. Andrew Smith, an extradition specialist from the law firm Corker Binning, stated, “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.”
This situation strains the tense relationship between Spain and Belgium. After the Catalan government’s declaration of independence in October, Belgium was the only EU country that did not stand with Spain in its opposition. While other EU countries gave statements backing the Spanish government, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Migel gave a more neutral statement: “I appeal for a de-escalation; I don’t think we will find a solution that is in everyone’s interest through political escalation.” The following day, a leaked letter from the Spanish embassy in Brussels stated, “We fail to understand how a partner country can make such statements, which seriously endanger our bilateral relations…. We find it completely unacceptable that the Belgian government puts itself at the same level as a regional government which breaks in a flagrant way the legal order of a member state.”
Now Belgium will again have to take a side either with or against the Spanish government. Whatever the Belgian courts decide, it is sure to have a large impact on Belgian-Spanish relations and on the continuing case for Catalan independence.