Self-determination is legal under international law and yet Spain keeps talking about the illegal Catalan referendum on independence, and world leaders, the EU, and most of the international press repeats that phrase like a mantra.
If the referendum really was illegal, will the more than 2 million people who managed, in spite of thousands of Spanish police swinging clubs, shooting rubber bullets (that really is illegal in Catalonia) and dragging women by the hair to keep them from voting, all be arrested and tried? For what? For sedition? Rebellion? For voting?
So far the 2,262,425 people who managed to vote can relax. The Spanish are not coming after them with warrants. Not yet. But 712 Catalan mayors are being charged with disobedience in connection to the referendum, having made their local polling stations available for the vote on 1 October. The presidents of the two large grassroots organizations that, for the last six years, have organized the massive, peaceful demonstrations, that in the beginning were for the right to vote and that eventually evolved into pro-independence demonstrations (the public becoming more fed up each year with the repressive actions on the part of the Spanish government), they have been imprisoned without bail, pending trial – some day -- for sedition. The charges against them made by the attorney general were received and accepted by a judge of the Audiencia Nacional, even though the charge of sedition does not fall under the jurisdiction of that court but must be heard by a higher court.
700 mayors and 2 grassroots leaders are not enough. The Spanish have also come after the legally elected Catalan government – the government that the citizens of Catalonia voted for two years ago. Eight members are already in prison, without bail, pending trial for sedition, rebellion, and misuse of public funds (for buying voting boxes and printing ballots). They were given less than two days’ notice of their hearing and their request for an extension, to provide time to prepare a defense, was denied by the judge of the Audiencia Nacional, the same judge who sent the two grassroots leaders to prison without bail before any trial. After the hearing the eight were hauled off in multiple police vans with their hands handcuffed behind their backs, without protection of seatbelts, subjected to various big and small bits of humiliation on the part of the Spanish police.
There are six more, including the president of the Catalan parliament, who also were given less than two days’ notice but who, upon petition, were given additional time to prepare their defense. Because of their political standing, they are being investigated by a different judge in a different court – the Audiencia Suprem. Everyone is waiting to see if they too will be sent off to prison without bail while awaiting trial.
The list of Catalan criminals who tried to follow through on their election platform of holding a referendum, a referendum that is legal under international law is still longer. Catalan President Puigdemont is in Brussels with four of his ministers. There they are waiting to see if the order for arrest and return to Spain will be honored by the Belgian justice system.
When Puigdemont first appeared in Belgium on Monday, 30 October, after the Catalan parliament had declared independence on Friday, people were surprised. You could say they were very surprised. People here didn’t understand at first why he had gone, and neither did the press. But he came on television to explain and then things started to unfold.
For the most part, the international press ridiculed him. One paper said he had brought his circus to Brussels. Others were only just slightly less rude. Puigdemont speaks five languages: Catalan, Spanish, French, English, and Romanian; he tends to make his public addresses meant for the international press and audience in one or more of the first four, but for the most part, it seems that international journalists don’t understand any of them. Definitely the Spain correspondent for the New York Times always manages to misrepresent what Puigdemont says no matter what language he says it in.
Puigdemont left Catalonia because there was a real probability of violence against the public if he had stayed. If he and his government had insisted on entering their offices and carrying out their business, the police would have come to remove them, other officials and civil servants and members of the public would probably have tried to protect them from being removed (like thousands of anonymous people tried to protect voting boxes from Spanish police on 1 October), and Spain would have had the perfect excuse to use far more violence than they had on October 1.
President Puigdemont’s exile in Brussels (together with four of his ministers) has been ridiculed, and those frustrated Spanish authorities and members of political parties who would like to see him in jail have said he is frightened, self-serving, evading justice, and betraying his comrades who remained in Spain to face the music.
However, Puigdemont and all his ministers had discussed the situation and each decided for himself what he would do. Some decided to remain in Spain, the rest decided to go to Belgium. This was an agreed upon strategy and it was a good one.
Those in Belgium would remain free, at least initially, to tell the world what is happening. And they are doing that. Puigdemont’s first press conference attracted more media representatives than any press conference he has had while in Catalonia. People are interested. The world wants to know. And at least for now, he is free to explain.
And explain he does. No longer feeling constricted by diplomatic niceties, he now explains how it is that the Spanish state’s actions are fascist. Dissolving a legitimately government because you don’t like their political opinion and putting them in prison is fascism. Taking over all aspects of an elected government is fascism. The political party that governs Spain is a political party that wins less than 9% of the vote in Catalonia. Catalonia now has lost the government it voted for and has one imposed on it that represents a tiny minority of Catalan voters.
But maybe most important of all is not what Puigdemont is telling the world, since much of the international press, although they talk about it a lot, they don’t actually tell their audience much. What is important is what Puigdemont’s presence in Brussels demonstrates.
In Spain, elected government officials were given less than 24-hour notice to appear in court, hardly time enough to make personal preparations or prepare a defense for the preliminary hearing. They were sent from the preliminary hearing to prison, handcuffed and humiliated along the way.
On the other hand, Puigdemont and the four other cabinet members, who knew, as we all did, that the arrest and return order had been sent to the Belgian police, made contact with the Belgian attorney general through their lawyer and made an agreement that the five would present themselves to the police without having to suffer the indignity of the police having to come and arrest them. By the end of the day, a judge was appointed to hear their statements and that judge, a Belgian judge, decided that they were free to leave the courtroom but had to remain in Belgium, inform the court of their address in Belgium, and make themselves available to the court when called. Not only was there no preventive prison, there wasn’t even any bail set.
Without having to say anything, this shows the difference between the way the Spanish and the Belgian judicial systems function in regard to the same charges. It raises the question of an element of bias and revenge in one case, contrasted with purely legal considerations in the other.
Puigdemont knew very well what he was doing when he went to Brussels. He is showing the world what kind of government Spain has, what kind of judicial system Spain has. The world is beginning to recognize this and more and more voices are speaking up to condemn Spanish actions. It is only the EU officials, all of whom are members of versions of the same political party as Rajoy, who continue to support him.
Puigdemont was brilliant to take the issue of Catalan independence and Spanish justice to Brussels. He said at the beginning that he did not believe he would get justice in Spain. And now he has put that accusation before the Belgian courts. Now a Belgian judge will review the Spanish accusation and Puigdemont’s defense, which includes legal points as well as the methods employed in Spanish courts and the treatment that the accused receive. If the Belgian judge decides, in the end, not to accept the order to return Puigdemont and the others to Spain, what a blow that will be to the claim that Spanish justice is fair and that it is not in the pocket of the government.
If he had remained in Spain he would be in prison by now. And from prison he wouldn’t be able to speak to the press and keep the issue of Catalonia before the eyes of the world. It is still possible that Puigdemont and the others will face trial in a Spanish court. If any or all of them are tried and convicted, those convictions would first have to be appealed until it reached the highest Spanish court. Only then could it be taken to the World Court, and that could take as much as ten years. In his move to Brussels, his appeal to an international court, although not the Hague, was achieved immediately. People who never heard of Catalonia six weeks ago are paying attention, and the world is watching.