Exiles, a pending issue after pardons
Amnesty or the reform of the crime of sedition could facilitate the return of those indicted over independence referendum
After the pardon of nine political prisoners, there are still dozens of people indicted over the 2017 Independence referendum, among them, the exiles. Right now former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and the former Catalan ministers Toni Comín, Clara Ponsatí and Lluís Puig, as well as former deputies Marta Rovira -also secretary general of Esquerra- and CUP's Anna Gabriel are abroad as a result of charges brought against them.
Arrest warrants have been issued for all of them in Spain, so that if they set foot in the State they would be arrested. This is despite the fact that Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí have immunity as MEPs and can travel throughout Europe without being deprived of their freedom. The General Court of the European Union requested the reinstatement of this protection as a precautionary measure (requested by the MEPs) pending a decision on the merits of the matter after the European Parliament accepted the suspension of immunity requested by the Supreme.
What is the solution for the former president and former pro-independence leaders who are abroad? At the moment the Spanish government has not commented on this. Only the Minister of Social Rights and Secretary General of Unidas Podemos, Ione Belarra, said she was in favour of their return, while the PSOE part of the government expressed its disagreement with this criterion: the minister spokeswoman, María Jesús Montero, considered that exiles should answer to the Spanish justice system.
The pro-independence movement has demanded amnesty to resolve the situation of exiles, as well as the thousands of people investigated for cases derived from the Independence bid and the 2017 referendum. Even so, the proposal has not even passed the filter of the bureau of the Congress of Deputies and the socialists - as well as the right - have already rejected this path. Another possibility is the reform of the crime of sedition, as backed the deputy of En comú Podem in Congress, Jaume Asens, which would consist in modifying the wording of the crime in the Penal Code to dissociate sedition from 2017 referendum. In fact, one of the recommendations of the report that the assembly of the Council of Europe approved yesterday is to reform the crime of sedition and rebellion so that they are circumscribed to acts of violence and not to mass demonstrations such as those that took place in October 2017 in Catalonia. The same body also recommends Spain withdraw all international arrest warrants for exiles.
At the moment, there has only been one member of the Catalan Government who left the State three years ago who has decided to return despite charges against her, ERC ex-minister Meritxell Serret. She was prosecuted for embezzlement and disobedience, but the Supreme Court ruling does not attribute expenses related to the Referendum to the department she was in charge of, Agriculture. Thus, through her lawyer, she contacted the judicial authorities to return and appear in court. She made a statement and was provisionally released pending trial. The most likely is that she will only be charged with a crime of disobedience -which does not involve imprisonment- and that she will be tried in the High Court of Justice of Catalonia, since she is currently an Esquerra MP.
The different cases that affect the exiles
Former president Carles Puigdemont and the former ministers Clara Ponsatí and Toni Comín now have parliamentary immunity as members of the European Parliament. The chamber stripped them of their immunity, but they appealed the decision to the courts which have provisionally reinstated it: the General Court of the European Union has decided to accept the precautionary measures that had been requested. Now they are waiting for the court's decision to clarify their situation, but in any case there are only national arrest warrants in force in Spain. The investigating judge of the Supreme Court, Pablo Llarena, in parallel to the issue of immunity, has raised a preliminary query to the European court to rule on the limits of states when it comes to rejecting euro-orders, after Germany and Belgium did so. Until the Court of Justice of the European Union makes a ruling, in principle, Llarena will not reactivate the Euro-orders.
Former Catalan Minister of Culture Lluís Puig is currently a member of the Parliament of Catalonia, but unlike the rest of former ministers who are also members of the European Parliament, he does not have the same immunity conditions. However,a Belgian court rejected Spain's request for extradition, questioning the competence of the Supreme Court and that presumption of innocence had been respected. As Serret, Puig was prosecuted for embezzlement and disobedience - not for sedition - but unlike Serret he has not returned.
Former Esquerra MP and secretary general Marta Rovira have been in exile in Switzerland since March 2018. A national arrest warrant is in force against her in Spain, but no international warrants have been issued against her nor has a case been opened in the Swiss country to deal with her extradition. She is being prosecuted for rebellion
The case of Anna Gabriel, a former CUP deputy, is similar, although she only stands accused of disobedience, which does not involve imprisonment. Therefore, if she were to return, she could find herself in a similar situation to the former minister Meritxell Serret