Belgium suspends extradition case for Catalan MEPs


Brussels (AFP)

A Belgian judge on Thursday suspended consideration of a Spanish warrant seeking the return of two Catalan separatist leaders to face trial, their lawyer said.

Exiled former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and his health minister Toni Comin were elected members of the European Parliament in May last year.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled last month that they enjoy immunity from prosecution unless Spain requests this be removed and their fellow MEPs agree.

On Thursday, Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer Simon Bekaert told AFP the European Arrest Warrant levelled against the men by the Spanish court should now be rejected.

Separately, Puigdemont's camp issued a triumphant statement.

"Today, the Belgian justice system has once again stopped the attempt to extradite president Puigdemont and councillor Comin because they recognise their immunity," it said.

On Twitter, Puigdemont declared: "Spain must act in the same way as Belgium has done and respect the law."

Puigdemont served as president of the Catalan region of Spain between January 2016 and October 2017, during which time he helped organise an independence referendum.

He fled Spain after attempting to declare independence on the strength of the result of the banned vote.

His latest arrest warrant was issued by Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena shortly after his court convicted several other Catalan separatist leaders on similar charges.

Another Catalan pro-independence leader, Oriol Junqueras, was arrested in Spain and has been sentenced to 13 years in jail for sedition over his role in the referendum.

But he was also elected to the European Parliament while still in pre-trial detention in last May's EU-wide vote and appealed to the ECJ, leading to last month's immunity decision.

Puigdemont took the opportunity of the latest Belgian decision to demand Junqueras' release.

Another Catalan politician, former regional culture minister Luis Puig, is also in Belgium and is not an MEP. He is still facing possible extradition in the case.

The next Belgian hearing in the extradition case is on February 3 but the judge is expected to take note of the examining magistrate's decision to recognise Puigdemont and Comin's immunity.

In recent months, renewed protests have erupted in the region, with police clashing with Catalan crowds angered by the lengthy prison sentences imposed by the Madrid court.

Courts in Belgium, Germany and Scotland have so far refused to extradite Puigdemont and other senior Catalan politicians sought by Spain for their role in the 2017 crisis.