TIELT, Belgium (Reuters) - Sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer pledged on Tuesday to fight a Spanish state which he said had abused courts for political ends but which he had defeated in previous extradition cases involving Basques.
Puigdemont, who travelled to Belgium after the Spanish state ousted him as head of Catalonia, said he had come to bring his case for independence to the EU, not to seek asylum.
But he has engaged Paul Bekaert, a veteran human rights advocate who has represented Basques, Kurds and others in the past.
“I know the Spanish reaction very well. I know their psychology and their mentality,” Bekaert told Reuters at the law office where he met Puigdemont on Monday.
“Spain is using the courts in Spain and in Belgium to make political statements,” he said. “You cannot use courts in Belgium or in Spain for politics. And that’s the case in Spain.”
Spain’s constitutional court ruled that an independence referendum which Puigdemont’s regional government organised on Oct. 1 was illegal. Madrid has since taken direct control of Catalonia and the public prosecutor has accused Puigdemont of rebellion and sedition, crimes carrying up to 30 years in jail.
Puigdemont was considering seeking asylum but it was not certain, Bekaert said.
“We have a lot of time to decide,” he said, adding that he could also take on as clients other Catalan leaders, some of whom were with Puigdemont in Belgium. “We will see in the coming weeks what we are doing.”
While Belgium has an unusual track record in refusing to extradite Europeans wanted by other EU states, the main reason Puigdemont had come was to address a wider audience for Catalonia’s grievances against Madrid, the lawyer said.
“He comes to Belgium first of all because it is the capital of Europe. He is here completely legally. He has the right to come here. He is not hiding,” he said.
Bekaert said he was not acting out of political sympathy for the Catalan cause. Puigdemont sought him out in the small town of Tielt in western Flanders for of his 40 years of experience in human rights law, not for any connection to the Flemish separatist movement which gives Belgium a particular interest in Spain’s struggles with Basque and Catalan separatists.
Since the 1970s, he has travelled as an observer to the Basque country, Northern Ireland and the Palestinian Territories, as well as defending people seeking leave to remain in Belgium.
He said, however, that the increasing use of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), first introduced in 2004, would make it harder to block extraditions of the kind he had fought for Basques in the 1990s.
While Belgium extradited people suspected of violence and terrorist offences it rejected some cases its judges viewed as “political crimes”. But the EAW, which reflects EU assumptions that all member states offer full democratic legal protections, makes the situation today different, Bekaert said.
“Since the European warrant, you can make an extradition for a political crime. The exception is no more in the law.”
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald