Lesley Riddoch: Unwarranted silence over Clara Ponsati

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After years of complaint, many of our politicians are keeping strangely quiet over Spain’s legal bid, writes Lesley Riddoch

It’s strange to see how quickly the extradition dilemma facing a former Catalan minister has become a proxy for the debate about Scottish independence and therefore something for polite society to hush up and tuck away.

Former Catalan minister Clara Ponsati with lawyer Aamer Anwar. Pic: Jon Savage

Former Catalan minister Clara Ponsati with lawyer Aamer Anwar. Pic: Jon Savage

There were extraordinary scenes last week outside the High Court in Edinburgh, when Professor Clara Ponsati was granted bail after raising almost £200,000 to fight extradition to Spain on charges of rebellion and misappropriating public funds. Yet coverage on network TV and radio was negligible. Indeed Jeremy Vine admitted he knew nothing of the story when it was raised on his Radio 2 show because of the extraordinary crowd-funding effort.

There’s also a wheen of interesting and important issues arising from the Ponsati case. How can a nation governed by a constitution like Spain’s ever exercise self-determination? How can a regional parliament elected with a mandate to hold an independence referendum be misappropriating public funds when it does just that – even if that action’s deemed illegal by a Madrid-controlled Constitutional Court? There’s a legal question about the fine line between an unofficial referendum and an illegal action – and another about the fairness of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). There are moral and tactical questions over Scottish Government policy – were they right to support the friendless Catalans, and potentially encourage a Spanish veto against any future bid for EU membership by an independent Scotland? There’s even an interesting wee difference of opinion between First Ministers. Nicola Sturgeon believes there should be no political debate – Alex Salmond disagrees. In short, the Ponsati case is stappit fu with talking points that interest Scottish punters. Yet the argument with most traction in the Scottish press is that support for Ms Ponsati is a Nationalist plot – a way to demonstrate difference with London, draw parallels between Catalonia and Scotland and talk up the idea that Scotland might do a Catalonia and hold an unofficial referendum on Brexit.

Please.

If there is another yawning gap in north/south opinion over the desirability of the final Brexit deal and Scots want to consider independence again to get a better trading relationship with the EU, Yes supporters will demand the same recognition and grown-up agreement with Westminster that was offered last time. The Catalan situation is not a proxy debate about Scottish independence. It’s a very real example of human rights being abused by a member of the EU. And as long as Scots are enthusiastic card-carrying members of that club, we have a right and an obligation to care.

Interestingly, MPs of all parties have been voicing serious concerns about the workings of the EAW over recent years – concerns that dried up as soon as a case in Scotland affecting a former Catalan minister presented itself. In 2009, British student Andrew Symeou spent nearly a year in a Greek jail after extradition on a European Arrest Warrant. He was extradited from the UK because he was a European citizen, but was unable to get bail because he was not actually Greek. A year later, former fireman Gary Mann was extradited to Portugal after a trial described by British judges as an embarrassment. He was convicted of an affray-type offence within 48 hours of being arrested. He had not, in fact, been involved and was released, but there was subsequently a demand for him to return to Portugal to serve a two-year sentence.

In 2016, the award-winning chief correspondent of Sky News, Stuart Ramsay, broadcast a report, which alleged gun-running in Romania. In response the Romanian authorities made a formal contact with UK officials, accusing the Sky journalists of spreading false information “to the detriment of Romania’s national security”. It seemed Romania was on the brink of issuing a European Arrest Warrant to extradite Ramsay and his film crew. As with Clara Ponsati, there would be only two grounds for denying that extradition request. A court would have to decide Ramsay’s human rights would be breached by extradition or that the warrant for his arrest was politically motivated. But since European Arrest Warrants are issued by the judiciary of EU member states, their justice systems are, by definition, supposedly unimpeachable.

Tory MP David T C Davies said at the time: “If some countries are not giving people bail, are holding them in pre-trial detention for an unacceptable length of time, or are using the EAW as a political means to silence criticism, it is absolutely right that we take the opportunity to review the use of the EAW and ensure justice is fair and proportionate.”

And the Spectator argued that the Sky journalists’ case demonstrated the fundamental flaw with the European Arrest Warrant; “It can lead to the incarceration of good people who fall foul of bad regimes.” The magazine concluded: “The European Arrest Warrant is a betrayal of centuries of British justice. Under this system, decent, honest people can be lifted from the streets of Britain with our courts unable to intervene. If Brexit really does mean Brexit, we must leave the European Arrest Warrant forthwith.” After these very strong words, the Romanians dropped their EAW threat. But this February, Theresa May opted to keep Britain inside the EAW mechanism after Brexit.

There are good reasons for that; between 2010 and 2015, the UK extradited 796 criminals back here for trial using European Arrest Warrants and 6,514 foreign criminals were removed from the UK to face trial elsewhere. So the EAW works – but it’s a flawed system. So where are those vocal critics now that a Scots-based Catalan law professor faces the possibility of spending the rest of her life in jail? Strangely silent.

Other countries have been more robust. In December, after Belgian authorities queried the likelihood of a fair trial in Spain for Carles Puigdemont and four other Catalan politicians, the Spanish Supreme Court withdrew the EAW they issued when the group fled to Brussels months earlier. Of course, it was finally issued in Germany. But Belgium’s stand proves that making a fuss matters. It can protect politicians whose crime is simply having a difference with their national government. That’s the core of the Ponsati case, so as Labour MEP Catherine Stihler said last week, every defender of democracy should be able to support the former Catalan minister – whatever their take on Scottish independence.

Quite.