Belgian court pushes back extradition hearing for 5 Catalans
By RAF CASERT
Nov. 17, 2017
BRUSSELS (AP) — A court in Belgium on Friday pushed back the extradition arguments of ex-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four allies until at least Dec. 4, likely keeping the secessionist rebels in Belgium right through Catalonia's regional election campaign.
The court hearing in Brussels for the five Catalans is the latest step in their flight from Spain to Brussels and their refusal to return to face rebellion and sedition charges that could land them in jail for 25 years.
Before the court session, the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium discussed their bilateral relations, which have been strained over the case of the Catalan officials who are wanted on a Spanish arrest warrant.
Puigdemont lawyer Paul Bekaert said after the first court session Friday that "we will argue the case on Dec. 4." Whatever decision is made at that stage, two appeals will be possible and a final ruling could well only come only after the Dec. 21 election day in Catalonia.
Bekaert said even though the prosecutor asked for the execution of the extradition request from Spain for the five, the defense lawyers could still give written arguments until early next month.
"So nothing has been decided today," he said.
The prosecutor said, according to Belgian law, there was no corruption on the part of the Catalan five but a "conspiracy of civil servants." And he added that for a refusal to fully commit to their jobs "there can be no extradition." He did not address Spain's rebellion and sedition charges.
The Belgian government has steadfastly said that it can't intervene in Spain's extradition request since it's up to the country's independent judiciary to make a decision. Friday's court decision can still be appealed.
"It is a judicial case based on the separation of powers. It is up to the judicial authorities," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said after meeting with his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy on the sidelines of the European Union summit in Goteborg, Sweden.
Michel's spokesman, Barend Leyts, said the talks were "constructive" and didn't center on the Catalan issue. Instead the two leaders discussed Belgium's candidacy for an EU top police chief and the upcoming relocation of EU agencies from Britain, among other issues.
But the extradition issue continued to create unease.
Spain supplied the Belgian prosecutor with information detailing the jail conditions for Puigdemont and the four others should they be extradited.
Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said all the information requested had been sent but pointed out that "Spain has been a state of law for many years," adding that "nobody in Europe is going to give us lessons."
The ministry said the ousted Catalan government members, who are being sought for alleged rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, would have access to their lawyers.
EU nations almost invariably have backed the position of Madrid in its standoff with Catalonia, whose leaders are seeking independence from Spain.
Yet Belgium was among the first to criticize the use of violence by Spanish police who were trying to disrupt Catalonia's self-proclaimed Oct. 1 referendum on independence. Spain says its police response was proportionate.
The Flemish nationalist N-VA is the biggest partner in Michel's coalition government and has had pointed exchanges with Rajoy's conservative Popular Party about the Catalan issue.
Ciaran Giles contributed from Madrid and Lorne Cook from Goteborg, Sweden.