Dani Garavelli: Playing politics with Catalan’s human rights

Former education minister Clara Ponsati greets supporters outside Edinburgh Sheriff Court after she was released on bail last Wednesday. Picture: 'Jane Barlow
Former education minister Clara Ponsati greets supporters outside Edinburgh Sheriff Court after she was released on bail last Wednesday. Picture: 'Jane Barlow
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Sometimes international stories and our reaction to them can act as a mirror, reflecting our best and worst traits back at us. That certainly seems to be true of the Spanish government’s treatment of the Catalan independence movement and specifically its attempt to extradite Clara Ponsati, professor of economics at St Andrews University and former education minister in the Catalan government, back to Spain.

On the plus side, the way ordinary people rallied to Ponsati’s defence, raising £100,000 towards a fighting fund in less than three hours, spoke of our love of the underdog and of our generosity towards those in need. Ditto the effusive show of support – expressed through flags and daffodils – as Ponsati and her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, made a brief appearance at court.

On the downside, some of the responses exposed again the binary nature of Scottish politics and the determination of some fringe elements to view each and every event through the prism of our own independence debate.

Before I go on: a clarification. There are politicians on both sides of the Yes/No divide who have resisted the temptation to use Catalonia as a proxy for Scotland or to exploit Ponsati’s plight for their own political ends.

Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that, despite her party’s disapproval of Spain’s actions (both its intimidatory tactics during last year’s “unconstitutional” referendum and its issuing of European Arrest Warrants for Ponsati, Catalonia’s ex-leader Carles Puigdemont and four others on charges of rebellion and the misuse of public funds) the Scottish Government could not and would not intervene in the judicial process.

Equally, Labour MEP Catherine Stihler did not let her opposition to Scottish independence stand in the way of her writing to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to insist that “all people have the right to self-determination” and that EAWs, which were introduced to prevent terrorism and other serious offences, should not be used to settle domestic disputes.

Other political figures, however, were less measured and cleaved to their default positions. Former SNP MP George Kerevan called on Scots to “bombard” the Scottish government with appeals to reject the warrant (something that is beyond its powers) while current SNP MP Angus MacNeil said: “You cannot have Police Scotland doing the political work of the fascists in the Spanish government”. Labour MP Ian Murray, on the other hand, insisted Ponsati be “given the opportunity to clear her name in her own country’s courts”.

As law lecturer Andrew Tickell pointed out in a column offering legal clarification: “There’s a strange irony in slating Spanish justice for being politicised, and simultaneously demanding that the First Minister should give unlawful instructions to Scotland’s court system about how to handle a case.”

But blithely calling for an individual to be handed over to a system which may be bent on political persecution, as Murray did, is unconscionable, especially when you’ve previously campaigned against the extradition to the US of hacker Lauri Love. Especially when you know the former Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, now remanded in custody in Spain, has been refused leave to transfer to a Catalan jail.

In a league of their own, as always, were – yes, you’ve guessed it – Tory MSPs Murdo Fraser and Graham Simpson, whose response to this complex and distressing personal situation was to tweet about booking a holiday on the Costa del Sol. Really, Scottish Conservatives do have an unerring knack of placing themselves on the wrong side of history. If they’re not branding Nelson Mandela a terrorist, they’re siding with a state that thinks the answer to a disputed referendum is to fire rubber bullets at would-be voters and charge the politicians who organise it with a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.

If a handful of Scottish political figures were engaging in over-simplification, conflation or legal misinformation, other European countries appeared to be in denial.

It is one thing to believe last year’s referendum was illegal and so to refuse to recognise Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence (though given the constitution enshrines the indissolubility of the Spanish nation, the separatists were in a no-win situation), quite another to stay mute as the Spanish government uses intimidatory tactics to crack down on freedom of speech and assembly.

But then Scotland is not the only nation which is sometimes guilty of viewing foreign affairs through its own prism; there are several parliaments, including Westminster, with a stake in giving no quarter to secessionists.

Still, as it struggles to sell Brexit, the UK government might have something to gain from pointing out how miserably the EU has performed on this issue. After the referendum, it backed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy while offering no condemnation of the brutality meted out by riot police. Now, despite Stihler’s appeal, it seems equally reluctant to question the country’s use of EAWs to hound politicians.

In Scotland, criticising the EU might play into the hands of the significant minority of the SNP voters who are pro-Brexit and undermine its chance of joining as an independent state following any future Yes vote. However, at last year’s conference, senior party members not only attacked Brussels’ silence but called on it to mediate in negotiations. The EU’s refusal to do so almost certainly exacerbated the situation.

Now the wheels of justice are in motion with regards to Ponsati, they have to take their course. As Tickell explained, there are several lines Anwar can pursue, not least of which is to argue that she “might be prejudiced at her trial or punished, detained or restricted in [her] personal liberty by reason of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or political opinions”.

But – and it’s not often I say this – Alex Salmond is also right; the former First Minister has pointed out that, as the legal cogs turn, there is nothing to stop anyone speaking out on what they believe is right and what is wrong.

Hopefully, the Scottish Extradition Court will find in Ponsati’s favour; if it doesn’t, then perhaps we should seek a reform of EAWs and the rules surrounding their use (especially as Theresa May has pledged to keep the UK in the EAW mechanism post-Brexit).

But either way we should be making our condemnation of Spain’s behaviour clear; not because Catalonia is a proxy for Scotland, but because – whether you are pro or anti- independence – the attempt to undermine the right to self-determination by force or the manipulation of the law should not be tolerated.