Sacked Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont and the four former members of his government who fled to Belgium after the Catalan parliament approved a universal declaration of independence last month appeared before a Belgian judge on Friday afternoon.
Puigdemont and former Catalan ministers Antoni Comín, Clara Ponsatí, Lluís Puig and Meritxell Serret – all ousted after Madrid used emergency constitutional powers to remove them from office – had been summoned to appear in the court after a European arrest warrant was issued for them.
All five officials face charges including rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds
All five face charges in Spain including rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds and making deliberately unlawful decisions as elected officials (known in Spanish as prevaricación) for their role in the independence push in Catalonia.
Belgian prosecutors have called for the presiding judge to execute the arrest warrant for all of the above crimes except prevaricación.
Friday’s hearing lasted just one hour and neither the Catalan politicians nor their lawyers offered testimony, according to court sources. But no decision was taken by the judge as to whether the European arrest warrant would be executed.
Instead, Puidgemont and the former members of his government must now reappear in court on December 4, defense lawyers said. The judge will then require a further 10 days after that to make a decision on the execution of the arrest warrant.
Puidgemont and the former members of his government must now reappear in court on December 4
This decision can then be appealed by both Belgian prosecutors and the sacked Catalan government members.
The defense teams for the Catalan politicians have been arguing that the basic rights of Puigdemont and his former ministers will be violated if they are extradited to Spain.
However, this will be difficult to prove within the European context. “It is not enough to say this is the case. The lawyers will have to demonstrate that there is a real risk and the arguments will have to be very specific because there is a presumption of respect for human rights among European countries,” explains Anne Weyembergh, professor at the Institute for European Studies of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).
But the Belgium judge could use a possible legal loophole to argue against the handover of the five politicians to Spanish authorities. The European legal framework allows for a judge to have the option of denying the handing over of suspects in cases where the crimes in question are not on the list of 32 offenses where that handover is usually almost automatic, and where the crimes have different definitions in Spain and Belgium. This is the case for both rebellion and sedition.
Belgian courts are obliged to deny extradition requests when crimes do not have the same definition in both countries
And in Belgium, what is considered optional under European law, has become obligatory: that is, Belgian courts are actually obliged to deny extradition requests in cases where crimes do not have the same definition in both countries involved, rather than this being just an optional move.
Despite this, experience suggests the Belgian judiciary is no less likely to recognize a European arrest warrant that other European countries, although data is scarce. “In Belgium, judicial authorities tend to lend more weight to the principle of mutual trust, especially when compared to countries such as the UK and Ireland,” said Weyemgergh.
“Belgian judges exercise less control,” she added.
English version by George Mills.