Olivier Peter is one of the lawyers who represent Jordi Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural, as well as Anna Gabriel, the former CUP MP now exiled in Switzerland. This young Swiss specialises in bringing human rights cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. On Thursday he travelled to Madrid to witness his client’s cross-examination. VilaWeb interviewed him in one of the bars near Madrid’s Supreme Court. Meanwhile, former Catalan minister Santi Vila was speaking in court and a general strike was in progress in Catalonia. During our interview Olivier Peter emphasised the importance of grassroots rallying in order for the Catalan case to move forward, because he is persuaded that the solution to everything won’t be found in a court of law.
—We’re meeting in a bar right by Madrid’s Supreme Court. Could you please tell us how you got here?
—On Wednesday evening I saw that Carles Mundó’s cross-examination had begun at 8.30 pm- This contravenes Spain’s legislation on judicial proceedings, which establishes that sessions must end no later than 8 pm. Then I realised that today might be Jordi Cuixart’s turn. I bought a plane ticket only a few hours ago. I got the last seat. This sort of thing would not happen in Switzerland. Firstly, out of respect for the defendants and, secondly, for their lawyers. Sessions cannot be properly prepared like this. On the first day I turned up in court, but was turned away. I wasn’t even allowed to sit in the gallery and they showed me out. That would not be allowed in Switzerland, either. This lack of respect for the defence shows an ideological bias. Having said that, I don’t know if I would’ve been much help. Cuixart’s legal team [in Spain] in top notch. It really is. My job is abroad. I wanted to help in court, but I wasn’t able to on Thursday. We’ll see today or the day when he is cross-examined.
—What details have you picked up on these days which you think might be useful in Strasbourg?
—The court’s time management is not based on judicial, but political criteria. Particularly, the change of dates when witnesses have been summoned. It’s details like that which show the arbitrary nature of this trial. The court is at pains to come across as being sympathetic to the defendants, but its political intent is showing through. They can’t help themselves. During the trial of Basque leader Arnaldo Otegi, Justice Ángela Murillo said “I knew that’s what you’d answer”. Justice Marchena is more collected. But I wonder if Murillo and Marchena vote for the same political party. There’ll be plenty of chances to explain how others are pulling the strings in this court of law. There are signs of that already. And there’ll be more.
—You’re an ECHR expert. Here’s a prediction: Strasbourg will give Spain a rap in the knuckles, which Spain will simply ignore.
—The Spanish government has no choice. It is expected to comply with the ruling before the eyes of the international community. We will likely win this case in Strasbourg, indeed. But, let’s take a look at a remarkable case, for instance, Otegi’s: the ECHR ruling only came once Otegi was a free man, after spending years in a Spanish prison cell. Strasbourg is important in historical terms. But today’s problems must be resolved today.
—And how do you go about that, in this particular case?
—Through politics. I believe this is a political issue and, therefore, it requires a political solution. On this point, grassroots rallying is the key. Through rallying the people, dialogue and agreements. Thursday was an important day. The general strike in Catalonia was very important for Cuixart’s defence. If Cuixart’s cross-examination had been on Thursday, the ongoing strike would have boosted his testimony. The ECHR adds pressure and the right to demonstrate is being put on trial. But not only that. Basic rights are also gained through mobilising the people, like the right to self-determination or demonstration. To quote Cuixart, you get your right to strike by going on strike. And your right to demonstrate, by demonstrating. Rights are gained and exercised in court and by rallying on the streets.
—Cuixart has also taken his defence to the UN’s Human Rights Committee. What progress has the lawsuit filed in his name made so far?
—I can’t give you the details because I didn’t handle it myself. We are paving the way for the ECHR. And we keep reporting the violations we see here to the international authorities. And we’re getting an important reaction. So far, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the World Organisation Against Torture, all the heavyweights of the international community, have taken a stand not merely to demand a fair trial but to say that the accusation is arbitrary and the indictments should be dropped. There is a seventeen year gap between the penalty sought by the Spanish Prosecutor and the international organisations. The former is aiming for a seventeen year sentence. The latter, nothing. I had never seen anything like it in Europe, such a crystal clear case. But there is more. The new Spanish government, which claims to be socialist and guarantee basic rights, is seeking an eight-year sentence. The difference between an NGO like AI and the PSOE government is precisely that: eight years in prison. Every day that Jordi Cuixart spends in jail is an outrage for the international public opinion.
—Where did you first meet Jordi Cuixart?
—We first met in prison. Cuixart is in jail because of his views. And he is prepared to pay a very high personal price for collective rights. His is the sort of profile that allows a movement to broaden its base. If we have any rights today, it is thanks to individuals like Jordi Cuixart.
—The trial has been underway for a few days. Where do you think the defence teams should have placed greater emphasis?
—I never criticise the work of my colleagues. I believe they are doing a great job. I’m very proud to be working with the likes of Benet Salellas, Marina Roig and Àlex Solà. I’ve learnt more in three weeks than in years of practice.
—How do you feel the trial will end?
—I believe the sentence was written a long time ago. However, the dignity, unity and strength of the defendants these days will turn around the power balance and the public opinion in Spain. The general public in Spain has been bombarded with an unprecedented disinformation campaign. And the defendants are giving them the truth, the reality. And, as I said, I feel that rallying the people, for instance through a general strike —which was a success— is an indication that the power balance is shifting. Ultimately, there is an objective piece of information that we will be able to assess: the result of Spain’s general elections in April. And we’ll see the new government.
—The sentence has already been written. How many years, you think?
—The sentence has been written, indeed, and they aim to imprison the political and social leadership of Catalonia’s independence movement in order to weaken it. They thought this would be a positive strategy, but now they can see it is leading them to a dead end. And they have seen that the independence movement has become stronger rather than weaker. I believe that the movement is much stronger today. Cuixart, Sànchez and Junqueras are stronger today.
—Respectfully, these days we have witnessed some public statements which, frankly, I’m not so sure they strengthen the movement, politically.
—I think the personal situation of some individuals has been extremely difficult. In all cases. They’ve had a really rough time in jail. Isolated. Far from home. Health issues. They haven’t got to this point on top form, as they should have. They are weak because that’s what the State wanted. Still, they’ve defended themselves pretty well, I think, all things considered.
—Is there anything else you’d like to add?
—There is. Some might be surprised by the fact that their leaders are in jail. But look at different cases in history. Gandhi was jailed. Latin American leaders who went on to be presidents first spent a stint in prison. Years. Tortured. And they came out with strength and legitimacy. De Gaulle was sentenced to death and look what he went on to achieve. You can see these things if you take a historical perspective. In Germany they have put up statues to honour Word War II deserters. When you look at the big picture, today’s prisoners might be tomorrow’s heroes. Today’s prisoners might become tomorrow’s presidents.
—By choosing you Cuixart sought to strengthen the political nature of the trial. Why?
—I was privileged to represent Anna Gabriel and our position was to stand up for basic rights and not deny the political nature of her actions, as well as of her persecution. Switzerland does not grant extraditions in political cases. Perhaps at the time our strategy was somewhat different from other defence teams. Yet I believe they complement one another. Furthermore, I have some experience working in cases of violations of basic rights in Spain. If I’m not mistaken, out of the eight guilty verdicts handed down by the ECHR in 2018, either Benet Salellas or myself were involved in four. In total, about ten cases between the two of us.
—Can Anna Gabriel have peace of mind?
—She is being persecuted by an exceptional court of law and a politicised prosecution. And she remains a symbol for the opposition. She is still a target as far as Spain is concerned. And if she were to return, she’d be facing an unfair trial. There is a risk. Anna Gabriel is aware of it. I cannot predict the future. But there is a danger that elements in the Spanish judiciary might suddenly change the indictments. And I mean only some elements, as others in the Spanish legal system are perfectly decent.