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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

German court remands Puigdemont but doubts merits of extradition request

The former Catalan leader will stay in jail over Easter as legal authorities consider validity of Spain’s European Arrest Warrant

A protester outside the Nuemuenster prison where Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigedemont shows his support. Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images
A protester outside the Nuemuenster prison where Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigedemont shows his support. Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

A German court ruled on Monday that former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont must remain in custody in that country until a review of Spain’s extradition request, but it voiced doubts on the merits of the move.

Mr Puigdemont can be held to allow an appeals court to consider Spain’s arrest warrant, a judge in the northern German town of Neumuenster ruled on Monday. The judge said the Spanish filing is not prima facie invalid, which would have required the court to set him free.

“The warrant has some points indicating that under a thorough review balancing the legal issues, the extradition may have to be ruled illicit,” the court said. “But it’s also not obvious that the warrant fails to state” any crime at all.

Spain’s effort to get hold of the Catalan politician led to the 55-year-old’s arrest on Sunday as he crossed into Germany from Denmark by car. Monday’s ruling is only the start of a cascade of court procedures in Germany over his freedom that could drag on for months.

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German prosecutors will now start the process of handling the Spanish request to return him to face trial on rebellion charges. Spain issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which typically simplifies and speeds up extraditions between member of the European Union. Nevertheless, German law requires that a court must clear any extradition, a procedure which can take several weeks or months.

The deposed Catalan president’s detention in Germany was hailed by anti-separatist forces as a decisive blow against the push for Catalonia's independence. In a boost for Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, the arrest will force Mr Puigdemont off the political stage, at least for the short-term.

The Schleswig higher regional court will now be asked to decide whether Mr Puigdemont can be held in custody while the proceedings are pending, said Michael Rosenthal, a German defence lawyer. Its judges could decide to grant him bail and order some provisional measure ensuring he will stay in Germany.

Prosecutors in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Mr Puigemont is being held, will first have to check whether there are legal reasons to block his extradition. If they find the extradition is valid, defence lawyers can challenge the warrant in court. Whoever wins at that level, the case will likely end up at Germany’s constitutional court.

Under the rules for the EAW, there is a catalogue of offences for which countries must extradite, such as terrorism, human trafficking or child pornography. Rebellion is not on that list, so the judges need to determine whether the charge against Mr Puigdemont is also a crime under German law.

The comparable crime of high treason under German law requires violent acts or threats to use violence, said Otto Lagodny, a professor of comparative criminal law at Salzburg University. Since Mr Puigdemont has avoided being associated with violence, the court may have to block the extradition, he said.

“The judges would need to show a lot of spine,” said Mr Lagodny. “I’m afraid they will duck out of it.”

The Spanish authorities are seeking to prosecute a total of 13 Catalan leaders for rebellion, a crime that carries a jail term of up to 30 years.

Madrid on Friday also activated arrest warrants for five other Catalan politicians who had fled abroad including Clara Ponsati, who was working at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland.

Police in Scotland said they had contacted Ms Ponsati’s lawyer and arrangements were being made for her to "hand herself in".

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It is well established that the Scottish government supports the right of the people of Catalonia to determine their own future and that we strongly oppose the Spanish government's decision to seek the arrest and imprisonment of independence supporting politicians.

"The fact that our justice system is legally obliged to follow due process in the determination of extradition requests does not change those views."