For some, ousted president Carles Puigdemont is the architect of a new independent Catalan Republic. For others, he is just a coward who led his citizens to chaos and ruin, and fled to Belgium. Today, he got his day in court.
At two o’clock, Puigdemont rolled up to the scaffolding-enshrined Justice Palace in Brussels to put his fate in a Belgian judge’s hands.
But history tells us that builders have a dubious reputation in the neighbourhood. The land exportation required to construct the Justice Palace, arguably the largest building of the 19th century, was so massive that ‘architect’ one of the worst insults you could hear in Brussels at that time.
The Belgian judge would not rule on Puigdemont’s skills and vision as a builder of a new nation. But whether he should be sent back to Spain to face trial on five charges, including rebellion and sedition, as the Spanish authorities requested.
The first hearing concluded with little progress. The judge scheduled another session for 4 December to decide whether Puigdemont and the four member of his dismissed government who escaped with him should be extradited to Spain.
One charge, corruption, was dismissed, which was seen as a victory by the defence, given that it would have triggered an automatic repatriation to Spain.
The decision could come in mid-December but the two-appeal system in Belgium would postpone the final verdict to early next year.
The defence argued that Puigdemont cannot return to Spain because his fundamental rights would not be respected. But the European Arrest Warrant would make it very hard for the Catalan and his former team to escape extradition.
Still, the Belgian prosecutor did his homework and asked his Spanish colleagues last week how the sacked Catalan government’s rights would be ensured.
He reminded them that the principle of “mutual trust”, the bedrock of the EAW, is not enough for a Belgian judge to comply with Madrid’s request.
Puigdemont’s lawyer, Paul Bekaert, already succeeded in 2013 in blocking a warrant affecting an ETA terrorist living in Belgium. The Belgian judge was attuned to the alleged abuses ETA members suffered in Spanish prisons.
It would be hard for Bekaert to argue that Puigdemont and the rest of the fugitives could suffer similar treatment as terrorists. The rest of his former cabinet is already in prison in Spain.
But Bekaert knows that Belgian judges, and the European Court of Justice, take into account the situation in prisons as a factor in postponing the execution of the warrant.
In a 15-page document, including pictures, the Spanish government informed their Belgian colleagues that a ten-metre cell would have a TV connection and Puigdemont would have access to a proper diet.
The Council of Europe yesterday published a timely report on Spain. The previous document, in 2011, offered ammunition to Bekaert to convince the Belgian judges to reject the EAW.
But this time around, the report shows that Spain’s prisons are far less overpopulated than the Belgian ones.
Puigdemont is running out of time and arguments to keep his European tour alive.
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