EU advocate general backs Spain’s attempts to extradite former Catalan minister

Legal experts say European arrest warrants cannot be denied unless “systemic deficiencies” in judicial system are demonstrated

Former Catalan minister Lluís Puig arrives in Belgium's Palace of Justice in June, 2020 (by Nazaret Romero)
Former Catalan minister Lluís Puig arrives in Belgium's Palace of Justice in June, 2020 (by Nazaret Romero) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

July 14, 2022 10:54 AM

The advocate general of the European Court of Justice has sided with Spain in its attempts to extradite the former Catalan minister Lluís Puig

Specifically, the legal experts say that European arrest warrants cannot be denied unless “systemic deficiencies” in the judicial system of the country requesting the extradition can be demonstrated. It cannot be done "if there is no data that allows proving, based on objective, trustworthy, precise, and up-to-date figures, that there is a real risk of infringement of the fundamental right to an unbiased process, because of systemic deficiencies in the judicial system of the member state issuing the arrest warrant." 

Belgium has repeatedly denied extraditing Lluís Puig, who is wanted in Spain for his role in the 2017 independence push. After rejecting Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena's arrest warrant against Puig, the judge requested clarification over whether the decision to deny handing over him was lawful.

Belgium rejected handing him over, arguing that he could see his fundamental rights violated in Spain, and mentioning the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reports calling for the release of the leaders who did not leave the country and ended up in jail. Also, Brussels said that Spain's Supreme Court should not be in charge of handling Lluís Puig's case.

In response, Llarena asked the EU court whether Belgium can assess the risk of fundamental rights being violated in another EU member state, and if so, whether the Working Group's papers are a valid argument.

The Supreme Court magistrate also asked Luxembourg regarding "the elements in EU law so that a member state can resolve that in another member state a risk of fundamental rights violation exists." 

The ECJ advocate general has also favored Llarena's position on whether Spain's Supreme Court was competent to charge the pro-independence figures. For the EU legal experts, this cannot be questioned. 

The EU advocate general has also pointed out that in this case, all pro-independence leaders have "at their disposal several ways to appeal a breach of the fundamental right, in the member state issuing the arrest warrants, and it can be appealed up to the Constitutional Court."

This is a non-binding opinion and states that Brussels' judges extra limited themselves when rejecting the arrest warrant. In fact, the decision only regards former minister Puig, but the definitive ruling could also have effects on other arrest warrants' future, including the one for former president Carles Puigdemont.

In Belgium, Puig has continued to be politically active alongside former president Carles Puigdemont and other pro-independence leaders. 

In October 2019, nine of Puigdemont's former ministers who stayed in Catalonia and faced trial for the independence push were sentenced to serve between 9 and 13 years in prison for the crime of sedition.

Puigdemont reacted to the advocate general's opinion by acknowledging he was "not satisfied nor was it what we were expecting" and said the exiled politicians would "fight for every right and every option until the end." 

Other unionist groups like Ciudadanos, however, celebrated it. "Today is a day to be happy," Spanish MP Edmundo Bal said in Congress, as the advocate general "supports judge Llarena so we can have Puigdemont here as soon as possible."

Puigdemont's extradition case also pending immunity decision

While the request for clarification regarding Puig's case will set a precedent for the other exiles' cases, Belgium's public prosecutor has stated that in the case of Carles Puigdemont, Toni Comín, and Clara Ponsatí, all former government members now in exile and MEPs, their extradition procedures will continue on hold regardless, because their immunity status has yet been fully clarified. 

After Puigdemont, Comín, and Ponsatí had their immunity as Members of the European Parliament (MEP) lifted in March 2021, their legal team appealed against the decision made by a majority of the members of parliament before the EU court. In June, they recovered their parliamentary privileges, before then losing them again in July in a provisional decision. However, in May 2022, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) provisionally restored the parliamentary immunity of the Catalan pro-independence MEPs.