The European Parliament has voted to lift the immunity from prosecution of the former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and two of his former ministers, Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, and which could pave the way for a new legal battle regarding their possible extradition to Spain.
In the decision on Puigdemont, 400 MEPs voted for the waiver of immunity, 248 were against and 45 abstained. The measures to lift the immunity of Comín and Ponsatí were by 404 votes to 247, with 42 abstentions, the EU Parliament said. The secret ballot was held on Monday but the results released on Tuesday morning.
Puigdemont and a number of his colleagues moved to Belgium in October 2017 – in their own words ‘to seek justice and not flee from it’ – after fearing arrest in Spain for holding an independence referendum for Catalonia in 2017 that the Spanish government under Mariano Rajoy deemed illegal.
Nine Catalan politicians and activists were eventually jailed for between 9-13 years by the Spanish Supreme Court on 14 October 2019. They were convicted for crimes of sedition and misuse of funds for their roles in the 1 October 2017 referendum, yet not for an earlier charge of rebellion. They had been found guilty following the high-profile Catalan Trial – with the verdicts causing widespread protests across Catalonia.
Puigdemont and Comín, who are in self-imposed exile in Belgium, formally became members of the EU Parliament in June 2019. Ponsatí, who officially resides in Scotland, became an MEP from January 2020. As MEPs, they were afforded protection from prosecution. Puigdemont’s legal team is now planning to appeal losing his immunity to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
The European Parliament noted in a report issued before the vote on Monday that the acts and prosecution related to the Catalan referendum of 2017 pre-date Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí becoming MEPs.
With their immunity lifted, this will become the third time that the Spanish Supreme Court attempts to have Puigdemont, Ponsatí and Comín handed over, after two previous failed attempts in which either Belgium, Germany and Scotland rejected the full terms of their extradition, or Spain withdrew the European Arrest Warrant before it was denied.
Belgium has so far denied all of Spain’s extradition requests related to the Catalan referendum. A court in January refused to extradite Lluis Puig, another former member of the Catalan government living in Belgium, over charges of misuse of public funds.
Spain is certain to start new efforts now to have the former Catalan leader extradited, but Puigdemont has vowed to fight on. The legal process of appeals still could take several more months, if not years.
In reaction to the news of immunity being lifted, Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) party said, ‘The political conflict between Catalonia and Spain is no longer an internal affair. We’ve taken it to the heart of Europe to continue denouncing the repression and political persecution of the Spanish state.’
Their pro-independence allies, the Esquerra Republicana (ERC) party, also offered their support to the three MEPs, ‘in the face of this new repressive onslaught … Political conflict can only be resolved through political means. We demand amnesty for all people jailed and exiled.’ In the Catalan elections held on 14 February, the pro-independence groups secured over 50% of the votes for the first time.
The pro-unionist Ciudadanos (Cs) party welcomed the outcome of the vote: ‘In a democracy, no politician is above the law. Despite the pressures of separatism, the European Parliament just lifted Puigdemont’s immunity. We will continue to highlight nationalism in Europe.’
The Spanish government has said that the European Parliament voting to lift the immunity of the MEPs shows the confidence of Europe in Spanish justice and ‘the solidity of the rule of law in Spain’. The Spanish foreign minister Arancha González Laya said in a statement that the decision sends ‘a message that the problems of Catalonia are to be resolved within Spain and not at a European level’.
Click here for all our previous reports related to Catalan Independence, the Catalan Trial, verdicts and sentencing
ALSO READ (27/9/20): Spanish government to consider pardons for jailed Catalan leaders
ALSO READ (7/8/20): Belgian court rejects extradition of former Catalan minister Lluís Puig
ALSO READ (1/8/20): Seven of nine jailed Catalan leaders have ‘low category’ prison sentence revoked
ALSO READ (27/2/20): Talks commence between Spanish and Catalan governments
ALSO READ (7/2/20): Pedro Sánchez and Quim Torra face ‘long talks process’
ALSO READ (25/1/20): Spanish government will seek to reform definition of ‘sedition’ in criminal code
ALSO READ (16/1/20): EU Parliament to consider immunity status for Puigdemont, Comín
ALSO READ (19/11/19): Amnesty International again call for two ‘Jordis’ immediate release
ALSO READ (30/10/19): Spain warns Belgium it will ‘take decisions’ if Puigdemont not extradited
ALSO READ (4/7/19): UN working group calls for release of four more jailed Catalan politicians