Toni Strubell, Henry Ettinghausen – Would Extraditing Puigdemont Make the EU a Better Place?

Is the EU no more than a club of states set on protecting the interests of its members regardless of the democratic rights of its citizens?

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Henry Ettinghausen is Emeritus Professor of Spanish at the University of Southampton

Llegeix en català aqui

Photo: Generalitat de Catalunya

On July 5th, the Court of Justice of the EU removed immunity from extradition of President Puigdemont of Catalonia and two of his ministers – all three of whom are MEPs – who have been in exile in Belgium for nearly six years. Must we take this as a logical judicial step or see signs of the further entrenchment of the EU as a club of states set on protecting the interests of its members regardless of the democratic rights of its citizens?

Four years ago, nine leading Catalan politicians and leaders of the independence movement who had stayed on in Catalonia had been jailed for a total of over one hundred years for organizing a referendum in Catalonia on independence. In many places where people voted they were beaten up by the Spanish Civil Guard and police, ten thousand of whom had been imported to Catalonia for that purpose. There were over one thousand people injured, all of which marks a clear contrast with the case of Scotland, where in 2014 David Cameron allowed a referendum. The 2017 referendum in Catalonia was declared illegal by the Spanish Supreme Court, despite the fact that the Catalan government had gone to extreme lengths to explain that it had every right to aspire to self-determination and had taken all the correct steps for its parliamentary implementation. However, despite the police crackdown, ballot-box seizures and massive internet blockage, 43% of registered voters managed to vote: 92% in favor of Catalonia becoming an independent republic, and only 8% against. 

The colonial behavior of Castile towards Catalonia has been a constant  feature for centuries. For many Spaniards, the Unity of Spain is a concept that is just about as sacred as the Holy Trinity, thanks largely to mainstream bishops and archbishops who are constantly seen preaching that it is literally “sinful” to break up Spain. This anti-Catalan mantra has become increasingly rampant in recent years in almost all areas of Spanish politics and media. It is not only the right and the ultra-right Spanish parties that are obsessed with extraditing and jailing President Puigdemont but a good cross-section of Spanish society. This includes President Sánchez himself who, during election campaigns, has promised to jail Puigdemont on more than one occasion. Besides this,  the hostility of the Spanish political class to the Catalan language and culture recalls the levels registered during the Franco dictatorship. Nowhere has a will to negotiate appeared on the Spanish side.

The ruling removing Puigdemont’s immunity, though not unexpected, seems shocking in various aspects. Questions that have not been overlooked in previous judicial cases have clearly been discarded here. Firstly, the fact that the defendants were systematically denied a trial at the Barcelona-based court that should have been designated. Secondly the fact that those heading the commission and preliminary reports leading to the demand for the withdrawal of Puigdemont’s immunity were clearly lacking any form of impartiality. MEP and committee chairman Adrián Vázquez – a member of a party that has repeatedly avoided condemning Franco – described Puigdemont as a “clown”. What kind of impartiality is that? And lastly, how is it possible that given Spain’s track record, any EU court can believe that the Catalan president will get anything resembling a fair trial if extradited to Madrid? Who can possibly believe that a State incurring in #Catalangate, massive Pegasus spying on politicians (and their lawyers!), that created the scandalous Operación Cataluña and the “Patriotic Police” to fabricate incriminatory “evidence” against political opponents can be seen as an impartial setting for Puigdemont’s trial? Can the reasons his extradition was refused by European courts on four previous occasions suddenly be overlooked?

However, the crusade against Puigdemont cannot be seen in isolation of the larger prosecution of up to 4,000 other Catalan citizens – a handful of which are actually British – for involvement in the demand for self-determination and non-violent protests against the conviction of Catalan politicians. A few of the cases that have so far come to court have simply been quashed, others have been upheld and others have led to several years imprisonment for simple protests. 

In 2017, when the right-wing Partido Popular clamped down on Catalonia, dissolving its parliament and taking direct control over the country, the supposedly socialist PSOE gave its full support to the widespread use of lawfare and the use of the law courts to condemn political activities that should never have been subjected to judicialization. When Pedro Sanchez, of the PSOE, became Prime Minister the following year, he vowed to get rid of the Partido Popular’s so-called Gag Law that had severely limited free speech, but he has done nothing of the sort. There is a Catalan rapper (Pablo Hasel) who has been in jail for well over two years for lyrics denouncing the very real corruption of the Spanish crown, while another Catalan rapper (Valtònyc) is in exile to avoid the same fate.

Such is the situation that there is very real worry amongst Catalan independentists that the Spanish General Elections on 23 July will mean a barefaced return to the principles and methods of the Franco dictatorship, making the present period of muffled repression seem trivial. Already provinces now ruled by the right and ultra-right since the provincial elections of 28 May are banning plays with homosexual scenes, pulling out of contracts with Catalan companies and clamping down on the Catalan language and culture. One of them has even appointed a bullfighter Minister of Culture. Whatever the outcome of the next elections, the rights and identity of the Catalan people and the future of President Puigdemont once again face grim prospects. Hopefully the forthcoming appeal before a more rights-friendly European Union Court of Justice will restore Puigdemont’s rightful immunity and once again question Spain as a setting in which his case can be impartially judged. Julian Assange said in 2017 that the Catalan issue would set a benchmark for democratic standards in the western world. It is now in the EU courts that these standards are being put to the test.

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