Scotland: Catalan separatist fighting Spanish extradition case

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Glasgow, Scotland – To her supporters, she is the underdog taking on the might of the Spanish authorities; to her detractors, she is a fugitive from justice.

Clara Ponsati is the former education minister of Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia and a current economics lecturer at Scotland’s University of St Andrews.

The 61-year-old bespectacled politician and academic professor voluntarily handed herself in to an Edinburgh police station in March following Madrid’s request and is currently out on bail.

She is fighting extradition from Scotland to Spain after a European arrest warrant was issued by Madrid on charges of rebellion and the misuse of public funds in last year’s “illegal” Catalonian independence poll.

The pro-independence Catalan figure is scheduled to face an extradition court hearing at Edinburgh Sheriff Court on May 15 ahead of a full two-week hearing this summer when she is expected to learn her fate.

“She has to raise a bar to extradition, most of which are set out in the Extradition Act or in the Human Rights Act, as to why she should not be forcibly removed and taken to Spain,” explained Karen Todner, an internationally renowned human rights lawyer from Britain, speaking to Al Jazeera.

Judicial protections

Scotland, a nation of 5.4 million people, with its own devolved parliament, is the second largest of the UK’s four constituent countries with its own distinctive legal system.

Ponsati’s future will hinge on judicial protections and whether the charges are applicable under Scots law.

Scotland is four years on from its own independence referendum. Then, the forces of the British union prevailed 55-45 per cent in the UK government-sanctioned vote.

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Despite this setback for the pro-independence camp, constitutional politics remain front and centre in Scottish political discourse – and Ponsati’s case has galvanised many Scottish independence supporters into action.

These include Pilar Fernandez, a pro-self determination campaigner from Galicia, Spain, who travels often to Scotland, due to her Scottish husband, and supported the independence movement there in 2014.

Like her compatriots, she contends that the charges against Ponsati are politically motivated after the Catalonian referendum was blocked by the Madrid government and Constitutional Court and deemed illegal.

“The Spanish government has been avoiding the chance to find a political solution,” Fernandez told Al Jazeera from her home in Galicia.

“So, they put this problem in the hands of the judiciary … but this is a political problem, so it needs a political solution.”

Devotees of independence

Ponsati’s legal predicament has regularly seen devotees of Scottish independence follow the Catalan to her legal hearings in Edinburgh to show their support.

“The pro-independence movement [in Scotland] is trying to protect the symbol that Clara Ponsati represents,” said Fernandez.

“And that is democracy, liberty, the right to decide your own future and freedom of speech against a Spanish government that is very close to the principles of [former Spanish dictator] Franco.”

Ponsati was not the only Catalan political figure who was the subject of a European arrest warrant from Madrid.

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Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan president, is currently in exile in Germany.

Just last week, he rejected being re-appointed as leader of the region, saying in a video message: “The intolerance and the lack of respect of the [Spanish] state towards the will of the citizens of Catalonia have appeared clearly in the eyes of the world.”

But many Spaniards – especially unionists – hold little sympathy for the likes of Ponsati.

Alfonso Valero is principal lecturer and international manager at England’s Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University.

He contends that the support from Scottish independence supporters towards Ponsati, whose lawyer said she could face up to 30 years in prison in Spain, is “misconceived”.

He added that if she was to be successful in defeating the European arrest warrant, it would raise many hard questions.

“If the decision of the Scottish courts was that they were not going to deliver Clara Ponsati, the message would be that the European Union has a problem with the mutual recognition of court orders,” said Valero.

“Because this is nothing to do with the Spanish government, this is to do with a judge in the Supreme Court in Spain requesting the delivery of a person that needs to be put to trial.”

‘An uphill struggle’

Todner says that Ponsati faces an “uphill struggle” if she is to prevail as it is “generally very difficult to defeat a European arrest warrant”.

“The whole purpose of the system was to facilitate the easy transfer of defendants between countries,” she said.

However, the human rights lawyer stated if Ponsati could prove that the charges are politically motivated, then she could win her case.

But, due to Scotland’s separate legal system, Todner sounded a word of caution.

“What ought to be understood is that, if she defeats that European arrest warrant, which was made to Scotland, it’s still out there in every other European country.”

She continued: “If she left Scotland and came to England, then she might face the proceedings all over again.”

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