The fate of Catalonia’s ex-leader hangs on whether “rebellion” is the same as “high treason”

Germany suddenly has a Catalan problem.
Germany suddenly has a Catalan problem.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia, is set to spend Easter in a jail in northern Germany. He was arrested Sunday night by German police, acting on a European Arrest Warrant issued by Spain, as he crossed the border into Germany from Denmark.

A German court in Kiel decided on Monday evening that Puigdemont was a flight risk and might head back to Belgium, where he’s been living for the past five months after fleeing Spain in the wake of the Catalonia independence declaration.

Spain has charged Puigdemont with the crime of rebellion against the state—which carries a term of up to 25 years in prison—as well as for the misappropriation of public funds. The German court now has 60 days to decide whether he should be extradited.

An EU member state isn’t obliged to extradite a person if the equivalent crime doesn’t exist in its own laws. In this case, the court will need to decide if what Spanish law defines as “rebellion” is comparable to “high treason” in German law, which includes the threat of physical violence against the constitutional order. The crime of “rebellion” doesn’t exist in German law.

However, if the German judge decides that only the embezzlement charge has a German equivalent, then he could still extradite Puigdemont—but then Spain can only prosecute him for embezzlement, a much less scary prospect than treason.

The fight between Spain and Catalonia is now being played out beyond the country’s borders with Germany at the center of the storm. Angela Merkel’s new government in Berlin, just up and running after a six-month limbo since the general election, doesn’t need a high-profile detainee on its hands. It’s claiming, for now, to be staying out of the court’s decision.

“The first steps are now purely legal and now it is time to wait and see,” justice minister Katarina Barley said on German TV.

“Spain is a democratic constitutional state,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a press conference in Berlin on Monday, adding that the German government believed the conflict over Catalonia was something for Spain’s legal system to solve. “That’s why in recent months we have supported the clear stance of the Spanish government to ensure this legal and constitutional order,” Seibert said.

The news that Spain had reissued an arrest warrant for Puigdemont and other prominent figures in the independence movement triggered mass protests in Barcelona at the weekend. Puigdemont’s arrest and detainment in Germany less than two days later have further stoked the situation; supporters clashed with police on Monday night in Barcelona, and separatists blocked several major highways in Catalonia and the Avinguda Diagonal, the main thoroughfare in Barcelona, on Tuesday.