Belgian lawyer Simon Bekaert is Valtònyc’s legal counsel against the European arrest warrant for the rap artist [who is currently exiled in Belgium] issued by the Spanish authorities. Bekaert also keeps abreast of the crackdown on the Catalan independence movement. His own father, Paul Bekaert, is on the legal team of the exiled Catalan leaders. He is concerned about how the trial panned out at Madrid’s Supreme Court and the judges’ lack of impartiality. As for the verdict, he expects the defendants will be convicted and sentenced to a prison term such that by the time the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) gets to examine their case, they will have served a good deal of the sentence.
In our interview Bekaert also discusses Valtònyc’s situation and the decision that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is due to take as to whether Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín can take up their seats as elected MEPs.
—Did you manage to follow the trial in Madrid against the Catalan independence leaders?
—I did. Several rights were infringed upon. The Supreme Court’s lack of impartiality became apparent before the trial had even kicked off. The court agreed to allow every single witness for the prosecution, without even checking their names. They just copied and pasted the list they had been given. The fact that they summoned Wim Kok, the former primer minister of The Netherlands who had passed away a couple of months earlier, proves my point. Wim Kok would have been unable to appear in court, unless the Spanish Supreme Court is endowed with the power to bring back the dead. In contrast, the court was very strict about the list of witnesses for the defence and many were turned down for no obvious reason. This is how the court showed its bias and its alignment with the narrative espoused by the prosecution. It is not normal for elected political leaders to prosecute the defendants and request a penalty for them in court. This does not happen in other countries. Far-right Vox did the public prosecutor’s job. How on earth can a political party be allowed to play any part in a court case? Vox got their daily news coverage, they used that to boost their election campaign … I anticipate that the case will go to the ECHR in Strasbourg and the European justice will reverse the Supreme Court’s verdict.
—Do you expect a harsh sentence?
—In my opinion the defendants should be found not guilty and walk free. Any other verdict will be bad. Spain’s Supreme Court is a politicised tribunal and it is unlikely to be fair. I do not trust it. The judges might impose a relatively lenient sentence and, by the time the case gets to Strasbourg, the Catalan leaders will have served a good deal of their prison term. That would be my prediction.
—The UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that the Catalan political prisoners should be released, but the Supreme Court has ignored the judgement.
—I find the court’s decision to ignore the judgement very significant. The Group’s judgements are not legally binding. But, obviously, if the Spanish Supreme Court ignores it, that can be used before the ECHR in Strasbourg.
—Would a guilty verdict make a fresh batch of European arrest warrants against the exiles more likely?
—I don’t think it would have much bearing on their situation. Neither in Belgium, nor in Scotland or Switzerland. The fact that a verdict has been handed down does not make much difference as far as Belgium’s courts and laws are concerned. If they get a prison sentence, then that can be used in Belgium against Spain. It would be an additional argument against granting any extraditions because you could argue that the exiles would not get a fair trial, if they were handed over to Spain. That would be the only positive outcome of a prison sentence against the Catalan leaders who have been tried in Spain. A Belgian court of law would find that rather shocking, and so would other judges in other countries.
—As for Puigdemont and Comín’s case, are you optimistic about the decision that the Luxembourg court is expected to take regarding their status as MEPs?
—I should be, but I don’t know how long the court’s ruling will take. Spain could push for several hearing extensions. This case is not just about Catalonia. What is at stake is whether voters can elect and MEP who may subsequently be prevented from taking their seat in the European chamber, after a particular decision. Clearly, the Catalan MEPs were elected at the polls and nothing should prevent them from taking office. There are unaffected by any incompatibilities and the only thing that would stop them from becoming MEPs would be a conviction that stripped them of their political rights. Spain claims they need to travel to Madrid and take an oath of allegiance to the Spanish constitution. However, that is absurd, as they would be arrested and they wouldn’t be allowed to take the oath. We also need to bear in mind that MEPs represent their voters, not an EU member state. The obligation to take an oath of allegiance to the Spanish constitution contravenes the European treaties. Furthermore, it would set a very dangerous precedent.
—How do you mean?
—If Spain wins this battle, it might have consequences for other member states. Political parties could run in the elections, people might elect their candidates, but then the state could prevent them from claiming their seat in the European Parliament. This could happen to communist, socialist and liberal parties … It could happen in Hungary, for instance. The European Parliament has got it wrong: it is supposed to protect its elected representatives. What would happen if eastern European member states suddenly decided to set limitations on their MEPs? That could actually happen. Accepting that is an attack on democracy and the European institutions. Some bureaucrats and European officials have lent a helping hand. Then you get people complaining about the lack of democracy in the European institutions and their failure to represent a majority of the people … It’s all a problem. You cannot claim that the European Parliament is democratic, with all that going on. The main discussion today is whether the parliament needs to be given a list of the elected MEPs, when everyone is aware of the election results. The European Parliament is ruled by hypocrites. Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, is fighting the decision of the Spanish authorities, which is unlawful, as well as the European Parliament’s, whose actions are also unlawful.
—You represent Valtònyc, the exiled rap singer. On 16 September the ECJ is expected to announce its judgement on the pre-trial issue lodged by the Appeals Court in Ghent.
—Ghent’s Court of Appeals decided to postpone the hearing until 24 December, awaiting a decision by the ECJ. If the judgement is positive for us, the Belgian prosecutor will likely want to write a report with his arguments and it will be adjourned, anyway. And if the ruling is unfavourable to us, then we will be doing so. So I doubt if we will have a definitive decision by 24 December.
—In March the ECHR agreed to examine the complaint lodged by Valtònyc against Spain for violating his freedom of expression.
—Sure, but the ECHR will not examine the key issue in Valtònyc’s case. We have every faith in Belgium’s justice system and we are confident he won’t be handed over to Spain. In addition, if the court ruled against us and granted the extradition, we could file an appeal with the ECJ and thwart it. But, once again, it is a political issue and they will not examine the key aspects of the case. I’ve heard that Spain has put pressure on certain people who have administrative jobs in the tribunal.