Puigdemont's decision to go to Belgium was 'intelligent,' says his lawyer
Former president's attorney in Flanders says the Catalan leader is no "coward" and that he did not hesitate in taking up his case
The Belgian lawyer of former president Carles Puigdemont denies that the leader of Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) was a "coward" with his decision to go into exile immediately following the October 27 declaration of independence last year.
In an interview with the Catalan News Agency (ACN), Paul Bekaert insists that Puigdemont's decision to go to Belgium was "intelligent" and suggests that some of the political leaders who decided to stay in Catalonia "did not realize the danger of going to prison for so long."
"I don't think those now in jail knew they would spend so long there, perhaps if they had known they too would have gone to Belgium or Switzerland," says Bekaert, who admits he advised Puigdemont not to go to Finland, the trip that ended with his arrest in Germany.
Bekaert, a renowned Flemish lawyer, said he had followed the events in Catalonia and had seen the unilateral referendum and Parliament's declaration of independence on television. The lawyer knew perfectly well who Carles Puigdemont was.
That's why he says that he did not hesitate for a moment in representing Puigdemont when a few days after the declaration, the then Catalan president showed up at his office in Tielt (Flanders), asking if he would become his defense lawyer.
"He made a good impression on me and seemed like a genuine statesman, who was calm and rational," Bekaert recalls during the interview with ACN, a year since Puigdemont and some of his former ministers went into exile in Belgium.
"I was sure the European arrest warrant was an abuse of the law"
Until Puigdemont arrived in Belgium, Bekaert says, he had no "direct" or "indirect" contact with either him or his team. "There had been no contact before he arrived, I had always been in touch with Basques but not Catalans [...] it was he who searched me out," he adds.
Aware of the situation in Catalonia, Bekaert says he readily accepted representing Puigdemont. "I was sure the European arrest warrant was not correct and that it was an abuse of the law and that Belgian courts would not accept it," he says.
Asked about what he thought about Puigdemont's decision to come to Belgium, the lawyer says it is "a decision for each person," but he also thinks that it was the right choice. "You cannot do politics from prison, it's impossible, you have to be free to keep doing it," he says.
"I advised him not to go to Finland"
After the Spanish judiciary withdrew the first arrest warrant against Puigdemont, and the bail conditions were removed, the JxCat leader went to Finland against his lawyer's advice, but with another warrant reactivated in March, the former president was detained on his return by German police.
"[When I met him] he made a good impression on me and seemed like a genuine statesman, who was calm and rational"
Paul Bekaert · Belgian lawyer of Carles Puigdemont
"I was in a meeting with colleagues on that Sunday and I remember very well what I thought, and I said so, that Spain waited until he was in Germany before acting because they were sure that neither Finland, nor Sweden, nor Denmark would accept the warrant," he says.
While Bekaert admits that he feared the German courts would agree to extradite Puigdemont, but the judges turned down the request to hand the Catalan leader over on the charge of rebellion, and only for misuse of public funds. Spain promptly withdrew the warrant.
"I was a lawyer in Belgium and I had many reasons for saying that there had been no rebellion nor violence and I have many arguments to show that," says Bekaert, who insists that the Belgian justice systems works in "an independent manner."
Considering the next step
While Bekaert is vague about the next steps in Puigdemont's defense, he does say that at the moment his team, along with lawyers in Spain, are looking into taking the case to European institutions: "We are considering it but nothing has been decided yet," he says.
The options being considered are referring the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, or the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, although Bekaert insists "it is still too soon and it is a decision that has to be made by all the lawyers."
Bekaert also says that the "media and political campaign surrounding" Puigdemont's case has "made it complex," but the lawyer says that is not so on a legal level. "When you consider the law it is not difficult, the law of European arrest warrants is very clear," he adds.
Reasons why extraditing Puigdemont is difficult
For the lawyer, there are three conditions in his client's case that make extraditing him difficult: the absence of double criminality (the charge exists in both countries), the "risk" of violating his human rights, and that a warrant cannot be used "for political purposes."
Finally, to the question of when he thinks Puigdemont will return to Catalonia, Bekaert responds: "He hasn't said anything about it. Right now we can't say when he will return to Spain, just that he will one day, I think, if he knows he will not be arrested," he concludes.