19th January 2022
Juan Carlos I and Corinna
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Spain’s former king, Juan Carlos I, claims immunity from English courts

Spain’s former king, Juan Carlos I, is claiming immunity from the English courts after his ex-lover accused him of spying on her and harassing her, a London court heard during a preliminary hearing on Monday.

German-Danish businesswoman Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein – also known as Corinna Larsen – is seeking a civil personal injury damages claim against the ex-monarch at the High Court.

However, the 83-year-old Juan Carlos, who was king in Spain from 1975 until his abdication in 2014, denies wrongdoing and is arguing that as a Spanish royal, English courts have no jurisdiction.

The background to the claim stems from when Juan Carlos met Larsen in Africa in 2004, when she was involved in organising safaris. The relationship developed romantically, and they remained lovers until 2009, remaining close friends for a while afterwards.

Their relationship only became public after an incident in Botswana in 2012, when Juan Carlos broke a hip in an elephant-hunting trip with Larsen. A Saudi entrepreneur paid for the king to be flown back to Spain when revelations about his trip and relationship were revealed in the public domain. Along with subsequent allegations of money laundering, the incident and relationship eventually led to his abdication in 2014.

Court documents on Monday claimed that the pair were in an ‘intimate romantic relationship’ between 2004 and 2009 and that the royal showered her with gifts, even after they broke up, including the transfer of €65 million.

But the situation turned sour when she declined to rekindle the relationship, leading him to pursue ‘a pattern of conduct amounting to harassment’, it was alleged.

The 57-year-old claimant alleged she was threatened, had her overseas properties broken into, and that the now Abu Dhabi-based former king ‘demanded the return of gifts’.

‘Further acts of covert and overt surveillance, causing distress and anxiety’ included ‘trespass and criminal damage’ to her home in rural central England.

Gunshots were fired at and damaged security cameras at the front gate of the property, she alleged, accusing the former king of being angry at her refusals.

Juan Carlos I and Corinna
Juan Carlos and Corinna in 2006. (Screenshot).

Lawyers for zu Sayn-Wittgenstein submitted that he had relinquished his status as sovereign or head of state when he abdicated, and as such was not entitled to immunity.

He could also not claim protection by being a dependent of his son, the current king Felipe VI, lawyer Jonathan Caplan said, and appeared to be trying to ‘frustrate’ proceedings.

Sir Daniel Bethlehem QC, a former legal adviser to the British and Israeli governments and representing Juan Carlos, said his client rejected the accusations of wrongdoing ‘in the strongest of terms’.

He also insisted that under the terms of the State Immunity Act 1978, Juan Carlos was immune from the jurisdiction of the English courts – and that any allegations had to be brought to Spain’s Supreme Court.

‘This does not place His Majesty above the law, but only recognises that, given His Majesty’s constitutional position, he is properly subject to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Spain, and the Supreme Court of Spain alone,’ the lawyer told the court.

‘It is not, and cannot be, in the public interest of the United Kingdom that its courts sit in judgment of allegations raised against His Majesty.’

There was an ‘inherent public interest in protecting the dignity of the sovereign and close members of the royal family’ because of their constitutional position, he added.

During the preliminary hearing, judge Matthew Nicklin said that he ‘would feel much more comfortable if the Spanish state could confirm that Juan Carlos continues to be a member of the royal family’.

James Lewis QC, a former chief justice of the Falkland Islands and also representing zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, said that no-one could consider Juan Carlos I to still be ‘sovereign’, let alone head of state – as he renounced all of that when he abdicated. Furthermore, Lewis said, no-one could reasonably argue that the acts of harassment and persecution that he is accused of were carried out under the cover of his public functions – in other words, with the protection of immunity. 

‘Abusing or harassing a woman with whom the accused had a personal relationship is a private matter,’ Lewis said. ‘It’s almost ridiculous to contend that it was the Spanish state that committed these acts.’ As such, the barrister continued, there is no immunity at play here.

A judgment in the two-day hearing, where the former king is listed by his full name — Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria De Borbon y Borbon — is expected at a later date.

On 2 August 2020, news broke that Juan Carlos had ‘fled Spain’ following on-going investigations concerning corruption scandals. Although his whereabouts were initially unknown, Spain’s royal household released a copy of his communication to his son and current king, Felipe VI, explaining that he was moving abroad to prevent the ‘repercussion of his personal affairs’ from undermining his son’s reign and damaging the monarchy. Two weeks later it was confirmed by the royal household that the former king had been in the United Arab Emirates since 3 August. He has remained there since.

Click here for all our reports on the Spanish Monarchy

ALSO READ: A year since Juan Carlos I left Spain, scandals and legal troubles remain

ALSO READ: Disgraced former king Juan Carlos I sued for harassment by ex-lover

ALSO READ: Former Spanish king’s ex-lover ‘terrified’ by threats from spy chief

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