Friday, November 17, 2017

Belgium Looks at Spanish Justice

Carles Puigdemont and the four ministers: Toni Comin, Meritxell Serret, Clara Ponsati, and Lluis Puig (pictured at right) testified today before a Belgian judge who will decide whether or not to agree to the extradition of the five to the Spanish justice system.

The defense will argue that Spanish justice wants to try the five for their political ideas and decisions.  They say that Spain is not charging them for individual crimes, but for political decisions that were well known to everyone and for which they were democratically elected.

According to the lawyers, the Spanish National Court has delivered five arrest warrants with identical offenses for the five - disobedience, rebellion, sedition and embezzlement of public funds - although it does not provide details of how they were committed or make any distinction between the five accused, although they held different responsibilities as members of the government.  One lawyer says that Spain does not specify what actions their clients carried out specifically for committing these crimes.

The lawyers, moreover, specifically reject that Puigdemont and the four ministers, sacked by an illegal application of article 155 of the Constitution that the Spanish government activated, could be charged with any criminal offense derived from the exercise of their public function related to the voting on 1 October. According to the Belgian press, lawyers will defend before the judge that political action, if it is an offense, is not a criminal offense, which is why extradition should be denied.  The attorneys say that criminal law has nothing to do with it. It has to do with acts related to constitutional or administrative law. The European arrest warrant is political and manifestly abusive, they say.

According to Belgian law, the Belgian judge may reject a European arrest warrant if it is shown that the interested parties will be tried for their political convictions in the country that claims them. But the defense strategy goes even further: lawyers will argue that the crimes of sedition and rebellion do not exist as such in the Criminal Code of Belgium. If the offenses for which they are charged are not classified as criminal offenses in both countries-, the European arrest warrant can be rejected for that reason.

Lawyer and Belgian law expert Denis Bosquet assures that, unlike Spain, the Belgian justice system "is absolutely independent" of the political branch. "The first difference between Spain and Belgium is that Spanish justice has put the ministers who remained there to appear in the Spanish court in jail. And they are not bandits. They are people who, by virtue of a political mandate, have organized a referendum ". The Belgian lawyer claims to be "surprised" because the Spanish government and the king "have expressed themselves so freely and critically" about everything that has to do with the 1 October referendum vote and its judicialization. "I was very shocked to see Philip VI's speech because he talked about irresponsible behavior of politicians. If the Belgian king made such a comment, he would have a very serious problem. In addition, in Belgium such intervention of the justice system would be inconceivable in the face of a political problem."

The ministers who appeared before the Spanish judge were
all sent to prison without bail to await trial
Belgian law could also refuse extradition if it is shown that those affected will be tried for their political beliefs or if it is proven that their fundamental rights can be violated in Spain. The Belgian prosecutor's office may have doubts in this regard.  In the middle of the week he asked the National Court for additional information regarding the extradition demand that affects Puigdemont and four advisers. The Belgian prosecutor was concerned about the conditions of the prison where the five Catalan politicians would be housed if Belgium approved the extradition and he asked Judge Carmen Lamela for information about the Spanish penitentiary system. In particular, he asked what prison the members of the Government would enter, what kind of cell they would be held in - he was even interested in the square meters - and how would their day to day would be in jail.

The Belgian prosecutor's office was also interested in procedural issues, such as what will happen when the president and the ministers arrived in Madrid, if Belgium accepts to approved the extradition, and which court will judge them. Finally, Belgian law asked for clarification about the information provided by Lamela (the Spanish judge in this case) in her account of alleged crimes committed by members of the Government, such as dates and details of the 1 October referendum vote.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said yesterday evening that the Spanish National Court had already sent all the additional information to Brussels. "Nobody in Europe will give us lessons on the exemplary rule of law," said an offended and arrogant Zoido.

Although it is not in their defense briefs, perhaps Zoido’s words will also be taken into consideration by the Belgian judge, who might think that asking for information in order to fairly view a pending case is simply part of his job and be put off by the exhibition of Spanish arrogance on the part of the Interior Minister, the person responsible for Spanish justice.

The judge heard the allegations of the Spanish prosecutor today.  The proceedings for the defense have been adjourned until 4 December after which the magistrate will have one or two weeks to study all the documentation provided by the defense of the members of the Government and issue a resolution. If he rejects the extradition warrant, the Belgian prosecutor's office – but in no case the Spanish - could appeal the decision if he deems it necessary. In the event that the judge gives a green light to extradition, the five members of the Government will be able to appeal twice.

According to data collected by the European Commission, Belgium arrested 74 people for arrest warrants issued by other member states, 17 of which - one in five - were not extradited by decision of Belgian law.

The fact that the two civil leaders and the eight ministers who presented themselves before the Spanish judge are all in jail awaiting trial while the Catalan President and other four ministers who presented themselves to the Belgian judge are free while awaiting their extradition hearing says a lot about the difference between Spanish justice and Belgian justice.  If Puigdemont and his ministers had not gone to Belgium and involved the Belgian justice system in this case, they would all be in jail in Spain, and the rest of the world would not know much about it.  Now, everyone is watching.

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