Will Belgium hand Carles Puigdemont over to Spain?

Extradition of the Catalan leader could take years, in a case that might test the limits of the trust between the EU partners

The ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s decision to defy a Spanish court summons and remain in Brussels will trigger an extradition dispute that could run for months, if not years.

The state prosecutor’s request for Puigdemont to be detained under the European arrest warrant (EAW) will initiate a procedure designed to speed up the handover of criminal suspects between EU states.

But any decision by a lower tribunal in Belgium can be appealed up through the higher courts, lengthening the legal process while straining relations between EU member states.

The aim of the EAW system was to do away with political interference in controversial extradition cases. It only requires that the criminal offence for which anyone is extradited must carry a maximum penalty of at least one year in prison in another EU state.

The categories of criminal offences covered are very broad and there is no legal precondition that an identical offence must exist in both of the countries involved. The EAW does not provide for refusal to extradite on the grounds that the suspect has claimed political asylum.

It does, however, allow a country to refuse to hand over a suspect on the grounds that he or she is being sought on the basis of their “sex, race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, language, political opinions or sexual orientation”.

The process will also be subject to approval by judges in Belgium, the surrendering country, that the extradition is “proportional” to the seriousness of the offence and the costs of removing the individual.

The London-based organisation Fair Trials has campaigned to remove abuses within the EAW system such as some countries’ excessive use of pre-trial detention once a suspect has been extradited.

Andrew Smith, an extradition specialist at the London law firm Corker Binning said: “If a Spanish European arrest warrant is issued for Mr Puigdemont and his former ministers, the key questions for the Belgian extradition court are likely to be whether the criminal allegations are politically motivated and whether the Spanish authorities are acting abusively.

“Mutual trust is a central tenet of how the European arrest warrant operates between EU member states, but this extraordinary case looks set to test the limits of that trust.”

Given an inventive legal team, the process could, technically, be slowed by repeated appeals to higher courts. Julian Assange resisted a European arrest warrant in Britain for almost two years before fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he remains.

Belgium used to have legislation that prevented extradition of its nationals. Perhaps the UK, which has not yet formally secured its place within a post-Brexit European arrest warrant system, might one day prove an attractive destination for Catalan fugitives?


Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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