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President Carles Puigdemont appeared in exile in Brussels six months ago, at the end of October, accompanied by most of his ministers. Following the proclamation of the Catalan Republic on 27 October by the Parliament of Catalonia and the subsequent trigger of Article 155, the government took refuge in Belgium to dodge the threat of incarceration that Spain had already begun to carry out. Spanish nationalists saw exile as fleeing, a move they ridiculed, but in light of the internationalisation of the Catalan cause, it can be seen as a success.
The first few weeks weren’t easy. Three ministers –Joaquim Forn, Meritxell Borràs and Dolors Bassa– chose to return and appear before Spain’s National Court. Forn has been held on remand ever since. Bassa returned to jail on March 23 after having been detained for a month between November and December, whereas Borràs was released in December. Four other ministers –Toni Comín, Lluís Puig, Clara Ponsatí and Meritxell Serret– remained in Belgium along with the president. The remaining five ministers -Oriol Junqueras , Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Raül Romeva and Carles Mundó- had decided not to go to Brussels from the beginning and were sent to jail, where some of them are still today.
Come and go of an arerest warrant
Judge Pablo Llarena subsequently issued the first European Arrest Warrant [EAW], leading the government in exile to hand themselves in to the Belgian authorities. Nevertheless, before the case was resolved, Llarena decided to withdraw the warrant, fearing a setback from the Belgian justice system. Then the government in exile began to build an operational structure and to hold regular meetings. The rental of a property in Waterloo and negotiations between JxCat and ERC led to the creation of a structure based on the Council of the Republic and the Assembly of Representatives, institutions of a private nature that are to be put into operation once a government is formed in Catalonia.
Earlier, on 7 December, those in favour of independence made another show of force with a historic mass demonstration in Brussels. Simultaneously, Puigdemont made appearances on a number of international media denouncing Spain’s repression of the independence movement and the imprisonment of the Catalan government. The suspension of Catalonia’s powers under Article 155 and the calling of elections added to the uncertainty. However, the independence movement’s renewed victory on 21 December left the Spanish state in an even weaker position.
Puigdemont’s arrest in Germany, a turning point
On March 25, after several days spent visiting Switzerland and Finland, Puigdemont was arrested in Germany while returning to Belgium to appear before the Belgian authorities. He was held in Neumünster prison for twelve days, before being released on the orders of the Schleswig-Holstein Higher Regional Court, which threw out Spain’s charges of rebellion.
German public opinion, which up until then had shown itself indifferent to Catalonia’s independence process, began to shift, becoming critical of Spain. In addition, the angry response by Spanish media, the unionist parties and the Spanish Supreme Court have provoked rejection in Germany. The Social Democrats, Angela Merkel’s political allies, called for a solution involving dialogue, while the German Justice Minister declared that the German court’s decision was correct and what she had expected.
In addition, a press conference by Puigdemont in Berlin attracted a large number of international media and revived interest in the political situation in Catalonia. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, politicians and academics have signed petitions calling for the release of Spain’s political prisoners, with organisations such as Amnesty International issuing reports that criticise the Spanish government’s handling of the case, and the EU-Catalonia Dialogue Platform was set up to call for the involvement of EU institutions and their participation in mediation efforts. In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee called on Spain to guarantee Jordi Sànchez’s political rights and agreed to investigate Puigdemont’s allegations against Spain.
Clara Ponsatí’s success
At the same time, Minister Ponsatí resigned from her post and moved to Scotland to resume her life prior to entering government. Ponsatí received the backing of a large part of Scottish society and its political class, together with the University of St. Andrews, where she had worked as a lecturer. The crowdfunding campaign to pay her legal fees as a result of Judge Llarena issuing a new EAW set a record: in a few hours it exceeded its original target of forty thousand pounds.
On the two occasions when Ponsatí attended court in Edinburgh, dozens showed up to show support, while the Scottish press is curious to see how the case against her will be resolved. In addition, Ponsatí’s lawyer in Scotland, Aamer Anwar, has repeatedly appeared on international media, criticising Spain for human rights violations.
Switzerland, the new arena
On 20 February, former CUP MP Anna Gabriel sought exile in Switzerland. She refused to appear before the Spanish Supreme Court, on the grounds that she would not have received a fair trial in Spain. ERC’s Secretary General, Marta Rovira, also decided to seek refuge in Switzerland, travelling there on the night of 23 March instead of appearing before Judge Llarena alongside Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Dolors Bassa, Carme Forcadell and Raül Romeva, who were held on remand once again. Puigdemont also travelled to Switzerland, participating in a human rights conference at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Serret, Gabriel and relatives of the political prisoners also took part in several events and debates. The relatives of those on remand participated in an event held in the European Parliament in which they called for the release of those kept on remand.
Exile has, therefore, served to ensure that the independence process has been heard beyond Spain’s borders and that the violations of the political prisoners’ fundamental rights were not silenced in Estremera, Soto del Real and Alcalá Meco prisons. The outcome of the European Arrest Warrants against exiled independence leaders will determine the role that exile will play on the immediate future of Catalan politics.