European Parliament strip jailed Catalan MEP of seat

File photo. ERC's leader Oriol Junqueras taking oath of his Parliamentary seat in the Lower House during the constitutive session of Parliament in Madrid, Spain, 21 May 2019. [Ballesteros/EPA/EFE]

The European Parliament declared Friday (10 January) that jailed Catalan separatist Oriol Junqueras is no longer an MEP, stripping him of the immunity his supporters hoped would see him freed.

Junqueras was elected to the European parliament in May but his term “ended with effect from 3 January 2020” after a decision by the Spanish electoral commission backed by a top court, speaker David Sassoli said.

The jailed pro-independence leader had just written to Sassoli on Friday to ask him to confirm his status as an MEP and thus to pressure Spain to keep him out of prison and allow him to take up his seat.

The letter urged the parliament not to declare Junqueras’s seat vacant simply because he has begun a 13-year sentence for his part in a banned 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia.

His plea came after the EU’s European Court of Justice last month ruled that Junqueras — along with exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, living in exile in Belgium — should enjoy immunity from prosecution as MEPs.

By extension, the Catalan independence movement hoped that Junqueras, who was elected despite being in pre-trial detention, could have been freed, despite his conviction for sedition since May’s election.

But on Thursday, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled that Junqueras’s conviction “implies the suspension of his status as a European parliamentarian”.

“It follows from the case-law of the Court of Justice that the European Parliament is obliged to take note without delay of the final decisions of the competent judicial authorities of the member states,” Sassoli said.

Junqueras’ ERC party said it was “outraged” and would take the matter to the European court.

Also on Friday, a Spanish Supreme Court judge said that Spain would retain its European arrest warrants issued for Puigdemont and another Catalan MEP, Toni Comin.

Comin and Puigdemont have received credentials for the European Parliament and plan to attend its plenary session in Strasbourg next week, despite Spain’s extradition demand.

Justice served?

The decision to grant the pair their accreditation had given their supporters hope that Sassoli might also push for Junqueras’ freedom.

“It is fundamental that the European Parliament protects the rights of its members and its own independence and work,” MEP Diana Riba wrote to Sassoli.

But Spain has also now asked for their immunity to be lifted, meaning they could be subject to European arrest warrants.

“We will work to ensure that the European Parliament grants the request as quickly as possible,” Spanish Liberal MEP Luis Garicano said, warning that parliament “will not be a refuge for those who have escaped justice”.

The European Commission, the EU executive and guarantor of its legal treaties, is also studying the situation.

Spanish MEPs opposed to Catalonia’s independence were triumphant. “Justice is served,” declared conservative Dolors Monserrat, who represents a Catalan seat but is loyal to Madrid.

She branded the EU parliament’s decision “a new victory for democrats and a defeat for those who moved against democracy and tried to use the European institutions to lie and harm Spain”.

But some other members were dismayed. French leftist Manon Aubry accused Sassoli of “bowing to Spain’s political justice”.

The political situation in Catalonia remains in flux following the 2017 independence referendum which Madrid declared unconstitutional.

The region, Spain’s most rich, was rocked by days of mass, sometimes violent, pro-independence rallies after Spain’s Supreme Court on 14 October handed down jail terms to nine politicians and activists for their role.

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