German Court Authorizes Extradition to Spain of Catalonia's Former Leader

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Carles Puigdemont in Berlin, 21 June. The former Catalan leader has been living in Germany since the end of March when he was detained on an international arrest warrant while driving through the country.

Carles Puigdemont in Berlin, 21 June. The former Catalan leader has been living in Germany since the end of March when he was detained on an international arrest warrant while driving through the country.


Photo:

markus heine/epa-efe/rex/shutter/EPA/Shutterstock

A German court decided to allow the extradition of Catalan separatist leader

Carles Puigdemont

to Spain, on a charge of misuse of public funds, a blow to the Spanish authorities’ bid to bring him back to stand trial on the more serious charge of rebellion.

While separatists had hoped Mr. Puigdemont could avoid extradition altogether, Thursday’s decision is likely to invigorate Catalonia’s pro-independence forces. Separatist groups have said that Mr. Puigdemont and other pro-independence leaders didn’t stage a rebellion against the Spanish state, but were exercising what they consider their right to hold a referendum on the region’s secession from the rest of Spain.

Mr. Puigdemont “is only being sought for criminal prosecution by the Spanish authorities because he enabled a democratic referendum to take place as instructed by his voters,” the former Catalan leader’s lawyers said in a statement Thursday.

Spanish judicial authorities, on the other hand, say no such right exists in the country’s constitution and that separatists leaders’ attempts to secede did amount to rebellion.

Still, the separatists’ legal win is unlikely to greatly alter the simmering tensions between Madrid and Barcelona, the capital of the wealthy Catalonia region. Spain’s new Prime Minister

Pedro Sánchez

and Catalonia’s leader

Joaquim Torra

met in Madrid earlier this week and agreed to launch bilateral talks to discuss, for instance, more public investment in the region. Both leaders heralded the meeting as a positive step and a shift in tone from Mr. Sánchez’s predecessor

Mariano Rajoy,

who had taken a tougher stance on the separatist push and refrained from much direct dialogue with separatist leaders. While Mr. Torra said he still wanted to work for an independent Catalonia, Mr. Sánchez reiterated that wasn’t possible. Another unilateral attempt at secession is highly unlikely in the medium term.

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The decision by the German court does, however, mean that Mr. Puigdemont could only be tried in Spain on the lesser charge of misuse of public funds if he is ultimately extradited. That would leave Spanish prosecutors facing a conundrum they had hoped to avoid: trying Mr. Puigdemont on a lesser charge than other leaders of Catalonia’s independence drive. While Mr. Puigdemont fled Spain last autumn in defiance of Spanish courts, most of his fellow separatist leaders remained in the country, were arrested on charges of rebelling against the state and are now being held in jail awaiting trial on those more serious charges.

A German prosecutor said prosecutors would decide whether to authorize Mr. Puigdemont’s extradition in a couple of days. His lawyers said Thursday they are weighing their next steps and a spokesman for Catalonia’s regional government said there are legal arguments to rebut the misuse of public funds charge.

Mr. Puigdemont has been living in Berlin and awaiting the court decision since the end of March when he was detained on an international arrest warrant while driving through Germany. His detention pulled Germany into Spain’s greatest political crisis in decades and triggered minor spats of tension between two countries that have traditionally been strong allies.

Write to Jeannette Neumann at jeannette.neumann@wsj.com and Andrea Thomas at andrea.thomas@wsj.com