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Catalan fighting extradition from Scotland poses nationalist dilemma

LONDON (Reuters) - The case of a former Catalan separatist politician fighting extradition to Spain from Scotland is creating political complications at an awkward time for Edinburgh’s pro-independence government.

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and dismissed Catalan ministers Lluis Puig and Clara Ponsati takes part in a meeting with members of the Catalan Parliament, in Brussels, Belgium, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Clara Ponsati, a professor at the University of St. Andrews and a former Catalan education minister, is one of a number of separatist leaders who face charges of rebellion over a Catalan independence vote in October, banned under Spain’s constitution.

The Scottish government is concerned about Spain’s use of a European Arrest Warrant against Ponsati and plans to raise the issue with the European Commission, justice minister Michael Matheson told the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

Ponsati will fight extradition on the grounds that she is unlikely to get a fair trial, her lawyer Aamar Anwar said on Monday, a day after Germany detained former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont on an arrest warrant issued by Spain.

The University of St. Andrews said it was deeply concerned about Ponsati’s potential extradition.

“We believe there are legitimate arguments that Clara is being targeted for standing up for her political beliefs.” the university said in a statement.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her government would co-operate with Madrid but that it nevertheless supported the right of the Catalan people to determine their own future.

Ponsati’s case, to be heard initially in Edinburgh, may become more legally complex, pitting Scotland, part of the United Kingdom, against Spain at a tricky time for the Scottish nationalist movement.

With Britain’s looming exit from the European Union, polls show Scots have little appetite for another independence vote although support for secession is still around 45 percent.

But the Brexit vote raised another grievance. A majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU, but, as part of the United Kingdom, Scotland will nevertheless leave the bloc.

Scottish nationalists are in a delicate position: Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) supports independence from the United Kingdom but its desire to keep EU membership means it does not want to provoke EU member Spain.

Madrid took a hard line against Scottish independence in a 2014 referendum campaign, wary of an example being set for Catalonia’s secessionists.

But Scottish nationalists do not want to be seen to fall short in supporting a fellow independentist movement.

“Many SNP supporters and leaders are sensitive and sympathetic to the Catalan cause,” said Dani Cetra, a research fellow at Edinburgh’s Centre on Constitutional Change.

“In the context of Brexit, this has led the Scottish government to tone down its pro-European discourse, since many SNP voters are frustrated at the European silence about the jailing of Catalan leaders.”

The Catalan regional administration has been under direct rule from Madrid and news of Puigdemont’s arrest sparked demonstrations in Barcelona which ended in clashes with police at the weekend. A number of Catalan politicians have been jailed pending trial on rebellion charges.

The SNP, which runs the devolved government with powers over health, education and taxes, has requested a meeting with the Spanish ambassador in London to express its opposition to the treatment of politicians.

“We believe that the political dispute over the future direction of Catalonia is one that must be handled democratically,” SNP parliamentary leader, Ian Blackford, wrote to the ambassador, Carlos Bastarreche.

“I have very real concerns that the current pre-trial imprisonment and pursuit of recently elected politicians, preventing them from participating in the formation of a new government goes against the principle of, democracy, of respect for human rights and risks people’s basic civil liberties.”

Reporting by Elisabeth O’Leary; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy