Catalan question German prosecutors seek extradition of Carles Puigdemont

District attorneys have applied for the Catalan separatist leader to be returned to Spain where he faces charges of treason. As judges in Germany weigh the case, many in Europe are holding their breath.
Passions run high about the secessionist leader and his fate.

The district attorney's office of Schleswig-Holstein has applied for an extradition warrant for Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who was detained in the northern German state last month. The request, the first step towards sending Mr. Puigdemont back to Spain, is procedural and was largely expected as part of a chain of events set in motion after his arrest.

A spokesperson for German state prosecutors said they had carefully examined the European arrest warrant issued by Spain’s constitutional court, the Tribunal Supremo, and found the extradition request permissible and in line with the law. The next steps are for extradition proceedings to move forward. Mr. Puigdemont was considered a flight risk and would be kept in jail until a decision is made.

Mr. Puigdemont's lawyer, Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas, said he had expected the move by Germany's public prosecutor, he told RAC1, a Spanish radio broadcaster. He has filed an 85-page appeal in Spain, seen by AFP, which says the charges of rebellion are not justified and calls for them to be dropped. And Wolfgang and Sören Schomburg, Mr. Puigdemont's defense lawyers in Germany, have requested that the application be dismissed.

Mr. Puigdemont faces charges in Spain for inciting rebellion after calling a referendum on Catalan secession. The vote was found to be illegal by Spain’s central government and its highest court. Now, Madrid wants to charge the rebel leader and former head of the regional government for the misuse of public funds, treason and rebellion. If found guilty, he could be jailed for up to 30 years.

After his regional government was dissolved in October, Mr. Puigdemont fled to Belgium. But he was pursued and arrested on March 25 at a highway restaurant in northern Germany not far from the Danish border, on his return journey from a lecture he gave at Finland’s Helsinki University.

It is now up to judges at the higher regional court in Neumünster, Schleswig-Holstein, to decide whether or not to accept the application, which had divided legal experts. The open questions spanned whether the charges Mr. Puigdemont faces are equivalent in Germany and Spain, to whether the country can legally extradite someone to face prosecution for their political convictions. So far, judges have found the question of rebellion is "comparable" in the two countries.

Up to 300 people took to Berlin's rainy streets on Easter Sunday in a show of support for Mr. Puigdemont.

The judges in Neumünster, a sleepy town in the windy flat lands of rural northern Germany, have a total of 60 days to consider the questions, with this period starting from Mr. Puigdemont's arrest. Meanwhile, many took to the streets of Berlin over the Easter weekend. Demonstrators bore signs saying “Spain is not a democracy” and “free Puigdemont.” Spain’s El Pais newspaper on Tuesday posted a riposte in English, arguing that Catalans are illegally challenging Spain’s democracy.

The questions of independence, and of central versus regional power, continue to challenge governments across Europe and elicit strong emotions on both sides. Germany was long hesitant to become involved in such difficult questions in a fellow European nation. Berlin's politicians are keeping their distance from the case, saying they will respect the court's decision. Last week, Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for the government, said that the Catalonia conflict should be solved within Spain's legal and constitutional order, and underlined that Spain is a democratic, constitutional state.

On Tuesday, the ministry of justice said in a statement to Handelsblatt that the question rests in the hands of the state judges. Germany's new justice minister, Katarina Barley of the Social Democrats, has yet to comment on the case – another sign that Berlin is wary of interfering in public. It is believed that Ms. Barley and Chancellor Angela Merkel have agreed on this approach. But there is ongoing communication between the justice minister and the court about a case that is being watched closely across Europe.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]