Catalans divided as Spain hails EU lifting of MEPs' immunity

Barcelona (AFP) –


Spain's foreign minister on Tuesday hailed the European Parliament's decision to lift the immunity of three wanted Catalan MEPs, although reactions were divided on the streets of Catalonia.

The decision relates to former regional president Carles Puigdemont and two others who are wanted by Madrid over their role in the failed Catalan independence bid of 2017, which triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Puigdemont blasted the decision, calling it "a sad day for the European Parliament" and saying he and the other two MEPs were victims of "political persecution".

But for the Spanish government, it was welcome news after several years of seeking their extradition, with Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya saying the decision sent "a very clear signal that the problems of Catalonia will not be solved in Europe or by Europe".

"They have to be solved in Spain but (by) bringing all Catalan forces around the table," she said.

Puigdemont fled Spain for Belgium in late 2017 to escape prosecution following the failed bid for an independent state in the wealthy northeastern Spanish region.

The other two are the former Catalan health and education ministers, Clara Ponsati and Toni Comin.

All three are wanted on sedition charges over the organisation of a banned referendum on independence, while Puigdemont and Comin are also facing accusations of misuse of public funds.

Comin, like Puigdemont, has been living in Belgium while Ponsati is based in Scotland, where authorities had put her extradition on hold while awaiting the EU decision.

As MEPs since 2019, all three had benefited from immunity from prosecution -- but they now risk being sent back to Spain to face trial and potential prison.

Their lives could be about to become "complicated", a European Parliament official told AFP.

However, Puigdemont has announced he intends to appeal the decision.

And in January, a Belgian court refused to execute a European arrest warrant targeting another former Catalan regional minister, Lluis Puig, saying there was a risk that he would not receive a fair trial.

- Split opinions -

Around a hundred people took to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday night to protest against the EU decision, holding placards calling for an amnesty for the trio.

"It's very sad and this will have very serious consequences," 63-year-old protester Rosa Ferrer said.

But opinions were mixed on the streets of Catalonia, which has long been split over the thorny question of whether or not ithe region should separate from Spain.

Blai Hereida, an 18-year-old student, thinks Puigdemont should be extradited.

"If someone is a fugitive from justice, we have to show Spain has effective laws that must be respected," Hereida said.

"As a Catalan citizen, I think Puigdemont should be put in prison for the crimes he's committed."

Although Puigdemont and several others fled abroad to escape justice, Spain prosecuted nine other separatist leaders who in 2019 were handed heavy jail terms of up to 13 years.

In another legal blow for the separatists on Tuesday, a Spanish court revoked the low-risk status granted to seven of those prisoners.

Since January, all nine had benefited from a semi-open regime allowing them to work on weekdays and spend weekends at home.

For now, the courts have yet to rule on whether the same ruling will apply to the other two prisoners, both women.

Since taking office in 2018, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called for a cooling of tensions over Catalonia.

He has proposed negotiations with the regional authorities, but the talks have yet to begin due to the pandemic.