Puigdemont arrest: Spanish law faces its next fiasco

Issue 
protesting_carles_puigdemonts_arrest_in_barcelona
A protest in Barcelona against Carles Puigdemont's arrest. Photo: eltemps.cat

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s exiled ex-president, spends a lot of time travelling around Europe, championing his country’s right to self-determination and denouncing the Spanish State’s denial of this right and persecution of the movement that fights for it.

Puigdemont and his fellow Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), former ministers Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, have felt free to pursue this work despite in a March 9 European Parliament vote and the July 30 rejection by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) .

The main reason Puigdemont has felt safe to move within the EU — except, of course, in the Spanish State — was the general understanding that Spain’s European arrest warrants against the Catalan MEPs were suspended.

That interpretation arose from the action of Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, the same magistrate who issued the warrants in the first place — on October 14, 2019, after the Supreme Court sentenced nine other Catalan political leaders to a total of 99 years jail for their role in Catalonia’s October 1, 2017, independence referendum.

On March 9, on learning that the European Parliament had lifted the immunity of the three Catalan MEPs, to stipulate exactly how European arrest warrants should be executed.

This move followed three years of his failing to convince German, Scottish and Belgian courts to hand over exiled Catalan leaders to Spain.

Llarena’s petition meant, according to the CJEU itself and to the Spanish Solicitor-General’s office, that all arrest warrants against exiled Catalan leaders were now suspended while the CJEU formulated its reply.

Indeed, in rejecting the Catalan MEPs' request for reinstatement of parliamentary immunity, the EU court ruled that “there is nothing to suggest that the Belgian judicial authorities or the authorities of another Member State could execute the European arrest warrants issued against the applicants and could surrender them to the Spanish authorities”.

Llarena said nothing, thus seeming to endorse this interpretation of the status of his warrants, while Puigdemont continued to travel unhindered about Europe, holding meetings in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Shock … and relief

This interlude ended in the evening of September 23. As Puigdemont came down the steps of Ryanair flight FR6732, from Brussels to Alguer — the Catalan-speaking town on the north-western coast of Sardinia where he was to attend a festival of popular Catalan culture — the former Catalan premier was met by a party of Italian police.

They had been alerted by the EU’s traveller tracking program (Schengen Information System — SIS) that Puigdemont was the subject of a European arrest warrant.

When conformation was sought from Madrid, the message came back that the warrant against Puigdemont was indeed active. The following morning, supporting documentation came through from Llarena: “[Extradition] proceedings are in force pending the arrest of the accused who remain at large.”

What did that mean for Llarena’s request for clarification from the CJEU? “Its processing does not modify the situation in which the proceedings [to execute the warrant] are now taking place, without prejudice to the fact that these will have to adjust in due course to the interpretation of European law that the CJEU makes.”

This was first time that anyone knew that the arrest warrants against the exiled Catalan MEPs had never been withdrawn.

After a night in jail, Puigdemont found himself in the Court of Appeal of Sassari, where his Italian counsel sought his unconditional release pending hearing of the Spanish request.

The prosecution, which in such cases represents the country seeking extradition, surprisingly agreed, demanding neither preventive detention nor bail, nor even an Italian contact address as condition for Puigdemont’s release.

Presiding magistrate Plinia Azzena then declared the Catalan MEP unconditionally free and set the extradition hearing for October 4. Puigdemont could appear in person or by teleconference.

The Catalan ex-premier immediately committed to physical attendance: “I’m familiar with the inside of a number of European jails. If, with the invaluable help of the Spanish State, I become acquainted with more, that would be welcome, because each stay gives us an opportunity to amplify our message.”

Pick a conspiracy

Puigdemont’s arrest shook up the Spanish political scene. While protests spread across Catalonia, Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) Premier Pere Aragonès dropped all appointments to travel to Alguer with his Deputy Premier Jordi Puigneró, of Together for Catalonia (Junts).

Prime Minister Sánchez rushed to stress that the recently reconstituted Spain-Catalonia dialogue table was not at risk from the detention, even if Puigdemont should “face justice” in Spain.

Those parts of independentism sceptical of the dialogue table increased their criticism of what they see as a road to nowhere.

Puigdemont himself led this criticism. While appreciating Aragonès’s solidarity, he said in a September 25 media conference: “There’s a part of independentism, not small [Junts], that has no place in Pedro Sánchez’s plans. It might seem that the [Spanish] government only wants to dialogue with those who give it parliamentary support [i.e, ERC]…

“Maybe those of us who have a different strategy when it comes to defending the interests of Catalonia irritate the government. That’s probably why the Spanish administration has such an interest in interfering in the affairs of the legal system.”

With this comment Puigdemont insinuated involvement of the Spanish coalition government of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) in his arrest, adding to the rising pile of theories about the incident.

For example, the Italian undersecretary for national borders told journalists asking why Puigdemont had crossed other EU internal borders without hindrance that “our police are more exacting than others”.

That would imply that the Italian police’s Dutch, German, Belgian and French counterparts had all chosen to turn a blind eye to an alert that had never been removed from the SIS.

For Puigdemont, his arrest was the work of “Spain”, with the Spanish legal system and PSOE-UP party to, or turning a blind eye to, Llarena’s plans.

However, of all the political actors vulnerable to a panic attack at the thought of Puigdemont’s extradition, the most nervous would have been Pedro Sánchez: having Puigdemont in a Spanish jail would probably bring down the PSOE-UP government.

Extradition of the ex-premier would produce such outrage in Catalonia as to make it impossible for the ERC-led Catalan government to remain at the Spain-Catalonia dialogue table, end the ERC’s external support for the PSOE-UP government, and probably bring on an early Spanish general election.

'Witch hunt'

Many questions about the Alguer episode remain but the most plausible explanation is that it was an operation of Llarena’s, supported by fellow conservative judges and Spanish police bosses determined to “get” the author of their humiliation in the 2017 independence referendum.

Those who stood to gain most from a successful operation by this part of Spain’s “parallel state” were the Spanish right and far right, virulently opposed to any dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan administrations: the premature tweets of ecstasy on Puigdemont’s arrest from People’s Party leader Pablo Casado and his Vox and Citizens’ counterparts confirmed that.

Evidence now emerging supports this viewpoint: Llarena keeping everyone in the dark as to the status of the arrest warrants so as to be free to choose his best moment to strike; the fact that the Italian police knew the day beforehand of Puigdemont’s arrival and that their operation was directed by the Italian interior ministry’s anti-terrorist unit DIGOS; Puigdemont’s legal representative in Madrid being stopped by bureaucratic manoeuvre from accessing his Supreme Court file (which would have shown that the warrant against him was still active); and a report by web-based daily El Español that on the night of Puigdemont’s arrest Spain’s senior police chiefs were following the action while his flight was in the air.

Given all that, it will be very surprising if the Sassari Appeals Court hands Puigdemont over to Llarena, especially as the Catalan MEPs are about to reapply to the CJEU for restoration of their parliamentary immunity.

The odds on another Spanish judicial fiasco look short. In the words of Puigdemont’s defence attorney Gonzalo Boyé: “When the facts come out about this ‘Operation Boomerang’, it will be clear that it is not a legal proceeding, but a witch-hunt of an individual […] European law operates on the basis of mutual confidence, and Spain has destroyed that.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]