MEP Clara Ponsatí attended the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday. In France. Exiled president Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín were also present. Last week, in an unprecedented move, the European General Court (EGC) restored their immunity, which the European parliament had previously revoked. All three, like Lluís Puig, are now able to travel anywhere in the European Union, except Spain, where the government has issued them with a warning. In spite of the upcoming pardons for the political prisoners, which are currently on the negotiating table, those returning from exile will have to stand trial in Spain. According to Ponsatí, “if anything proves that we are an occupied country, it is the way in which the Spanish justice system treats Catalans.” And the path of exile, she says, provides evidence of this. We asked her for her opinion on all these issues.
—According to Boye [the MEP’s legal counsel], the EGC’s temporary injunctions to restore your immunity are unprecedented. Do you think the decision was politically motivated?
—I wouldn’t dare interpret the court’s decision as being down to political meddling, but an appeal like ours is equally unprecedented. I always try my best not to harbour false hopes and I honestly wasn’t expecting the decision. But I wasn’t so sure that they would try to arrest us, if we travelled abroad. Why would they, if our extraditions were in the hands of a judge? Nevertheless, it’s a good sign. They messed up in July 2019, when they denied the temporary injunction to President Puigdemont and Minister Comín. And now they’ve seen that we aren’t dangerous individuals and that us travelling abroad doesn’t pose any kind of threat. On the contrary, if we were to be arrested, it would be problematic for parliament. Because the European parliament merely revoked our immunity so that the extradition processes would continue.
—The Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has issued a very harsh report calling on the Spanish state to release the Catalan political prisoners and to drop the European arrest warrants. What do you think?
—I’m glad that, as time goes by, a growing number of independent human rights organizations speak out about something we’ve known for a long time. It’s not easy for us to convince the European institutions that they have a problem. Therefore, it is very positive that the Council of Europe has published this report. It has yet to be voted on, but I’m feeling rather positive about it as it looks as if the majority of the committee was very clear. Nevertheless, I’m sure Spain will start a campaign to disparage it, as it did with the appeal. But the report lays it all out in black and white. Meanwhile, the European Commission insists that it sees no problem in the rule of law in Spain. It’s a bit much: they ignore the opinions of the arbitrary detentions group and those of Amnesty International. Are they also going to ignore this report? The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for them to do so.
—Spain has tried to spin it as a vindication of its handling of the political prisoners.
—It’s a classic case of manipulation and fake news by government bodies. They even blame it on Russia and social media bots. It’s plain to see that the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is being used to spread disinformation on a massive scale. It’s outrageous. Maybe they’ll go too far, and it’ll come back to bite them.
—How do you mean?
—For someone who’s actually read the report and has seen the tweets, it’s so obvious that what they say simply isn’t true. It doesn’t make the ministry look good. They’ll go and issue a statement saying that the pardons and everything they say they’ll do is consistent with the report’s recommendations. But their tweets don’t say that, they’ve twisted its content.
—In terms of the return of your parliamentary immunity, it’s now down to Sassoli and the European Parliament. What do you expect they’ll do?
—I really don’t know. I think they ought to say that they take no issue with it. Why should they? I don’t see that they can have much to say against it. The restoration of our immunity is a temporary injunction in defence of natural rights, under the circumstances. We’re so used to being abused by the justice system that when it treats us normally, it seems strange. But in fact, if you think about it, outside of Spain, it’s normal that if there’s an appeal, the court’s decision is put on hold until the appeal is resolved.
—Those in exile have been racking up legal victories.
—The path of exile strengthens the argument that there’s no justice in Spain. If it can be argued that we are an occupied people, it is thanks to the way in which the Spanish justice system treats the Catalans. The Spanish justice system is fairly impartial for the most part. Political parties and the monarchy don’t receive impartial treatment, but there are more checks and balances. When it comes to the Catalans, there’s no such thing. The accusations begin with fishing expeditions and baseless investigations; then it goes to trial and the judges throw the book at you. Clearly it proves that it’s a colonial situation. Exile serves to shed light on this corrupt system known as Spanish justice. It is the best thing about dealing with non-Spanish courts. They do things in a normal way. They follow the rules, and they don’t have this burning desire to punish us.
—You meant to show that the Spanish justice system…
—Breaks its own rules. They’ve used the charge of sedition as a reason to impose long prison sentences, but it goes against the Spanish law itself. It’s clear that the crime of sedition, according to the Spanish criminal code, is a wild card that allow for multiple interpretations. But it can’t be stretched as far as they’ve made out. This became clear during the trial. It was a farce, full of procedural irregularities. Presumably the defence teams had hoped that the trial would stick to the rules as far as Spanish law is concerned, as was the case with Trapero’s trial. But it’s clear that in the case of the Catalan government and the two Jordis, Spain’s Supreme Court was unwilling to follow Spanish law. Judges have to swear some form of political allegiance before they are appointed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme is seen as the last bastion of the unity of Spain and it’s obvious they see it as their job, and it will remain that way until someone puts a stop to it.
—Aside from the judicial angle, what incentives does the European Union have to intervene in the conflict?
—Double standards and hypocrisy are all too common in politics. But when they occur in such a systematic manner… You see, if certain abuses took place in Spain but there weren’t any political prisoners, it wouldn’t be so visible, and the European Union would feel more comfortable. This is where the plan to pardon the Catalan prisoners comes in. Without making it public, the European authorities are asking the Spanish government to resolve the issue because it’s untenable, embarrassing and it complicates their foreign policy on other fronts. Spain has to cover up the pressure and if they can do so with a few pardons, they’ll be happy to do so. However, at present they don’t have any incentives to force them to intervene in resolving the political problem. Because Catalonia is not a problem right now. Why should they do anything? To try and help us? Out of the goodness of their heart? It’s not how things are done in politics.
—It’s not enough.
—At the moment things have calmed down in Catalonia and there are no demonstrations causing any problems, meaning there aren’t many incentives right now. However, things can change quite suddenly. The decisions made by the European justice system might end up being important, especially in terms of rallying the Catalan people. If the Spanish government break European law and operate outside the rule of law, this will justify the Catalans, who are European citizens, in mobilizing to establish a separate state. But until that happens I don’t think they have any incentive to speak out on the issue. Not explicitly, for sure. The Spanish government is under pressure from behind the scenes. But the pressure must be even greater for it to overhaul the pension system, sort out the labour market and review the tax system. Brussels is more concerned about the economic problem than the political problem. Plus, they don’t want to get involved for fear of opening a Pandora’s box.
—How do you interpret the fact that the formation of a new government in Catalonia has coincided with the Spanish government raising the prospect of pardons?
—It’s not a coincidence. They waited until there was a pro-independence government in Catalonia. It’s not the government they had wished for, but its agenda is clearly not a separatist one. They can rest assured that the Catalan institutions won’t make a move towards independence. And that makes issuing pardons easier. [The Spanish government will] have to woo the public opinion in Spain, which won’t be easy, but they’ll also need to convince a segment of the unionist electorate in Catalonia. They’ll need to persuade them that it will help solve the problem. Everyone who receives a pardon must know whether it’s in return for something or not. But the political package is that there’ll be political pardons in exchange for putting independence on the back burner.
—It has been suggested that a reform of the crime of sedition might hypothetically allow the exiles to return.
—Well, let them try it, and we’ll see. The PSOE has declared on many occasions that those who are in prison have already been punished. Which is very true, they’ve been in jail for nearly four years. They can now claim that they’ve all been tried and convicted and that they’re being magnanimous by granting the pardons so that the wounds can heal. But those who haven’t been tried and punished must first be tried and punished. And to try and punish us, we either have to return and one day the Spanish Guardia Civil will catch us by surprise on Passeig de Gràcia, or they’ll have to secure our extradition. And Toni Comín, Lluís Puig and President Puigdemont also face charges of embezzlement, which potentially carry an eight year sentence. Things aren’t that simple.
—The Spanish government has already explicitly stated what you’ve just said. That whatever happens in terms of the pardons, those in exile will have to be tried in Spain.
—Yes. They want us in the Supreme Court with Judge Marchena with his robes and his crucifix.
— How does having your immunity restored affect your personal legal situation? There’s the European arrest warrant in Scotland, but you are now living in Belgium.
—I need to talk to my lawyers about it. I understand that, as long as my immunity has been restored, everything is put on hold, whether it’s in Scotland or in Belgium. It looked like the judge wanted to dismiss the case as I no longer live in Scotland… There’s a hearing scheduled for 26 August, which will be affected by whether I have immunity then or not. I’m not sure how it will turn out, but it won’t be affected by Brexit, anyway. Agreements and court rulings are respected, and the previous state of affairs is maintained, in principle, it means they’ll respect my immunity. Also, it could be that immunity lasts two weeks, two months, or that it continues until the end. I think we will keep it until the main issue has been resolved.