A lawyer with a long history of defending members of Basque terrorist organization ETA has been hired by the ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to provide legal advice on the subject of a hypothetical asylum request in Belgium.
Paul Bekaert, 68, specializes in human rights and has worked on numerous cases to halt the extradition of ETA members to Spain.
In the 1990s, pressure from Spanish law enforcement agencies and counter-terrorism cooperation between Spanish and French authorities saw many ETA members flee southern France – their traditional safe haven – to seek a new hiding place in Belgium.
I have more than 30 years’ experience in extradition and political asylum of Basque citizens, and that is probably why Puigdemont has called me
Bekaert said on Monday that Puigdemont has hired him as a legal advisor, but would not confirm whether he has met personally with the former Catalan premier.
“I can confirm that Puigdemont has contacted me today. I cannot reveal what he asked me because I am bound by professional secrecy,” he said in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS on Monday. “Nothing has been decided yet regarding an asylum request. There will be an appearance [by Puigdemont] on the subject.”
Bekaert’s office is located in the Flemish town of Tielt, around 80 kilometers west of Brussels. One of his best-known cases involved an alleged ETA member named Natividad Jáuregui, who was residing in Gant and was arrested after more than 30 years on the run. The case was a victory for Bekaert, after Belgium refused to turn her over to Spain in 2013.
Belgian courts have traditionally exhibited mistrust about the application of the rule of law in Spain, an attitude that is uncommon among EU member states. In January of this year, the family of one of Jáuregui’s victims resorted to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where it challenged the Belgian courts’ decision to deny extradition on the grounds that there is a risk of “torture” in Spain.
Bekaert has also represented the alleged ETA collaborators Luis Moreno Ramago and Raquel García Aranz, who were arrested in Brussels in June 1993. Bekaert managed to get them released after alleging that the suspects had confessed after being subjected to “abuse and beatings.”
Their release triggered a political incident between both countries, and legal cooperation was suspended. The Belgian courts finally dismissed Ramago and Aranz’s asylum petition, but did not honor Spain’s extradition request.
This background was a determining factor in Puigdemont’s decision to seek Bekaert’s services.
“I have more than 30 years’ experience in extradition and political asylum of Basque citizens, and that is probably why Puigdemont has called me. I am familiar with extradition procedures and European arrest warrants,” he told the Belgian news station VRT.
In the past, Bekaert has also defended suspects from regions with territorial disputes, including several recruiters involved in the Chechnya conflict, and the Kurdish terrorist Fehriye Erdal, who was recently sentenced in absentia to a 15-year prison term for murdering three people in 1996. She is currently a fugitive from justice.
English version by Susana Urra.