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Oriol Junqueras should have been released from pre-trial detention, ruling says.
Updated 12/19/19, 1:41 PM CET
Europe's top court ruled on Thursday that a leading Catalan separatist should have been allowed to leave prison to take up his seat in the European Parliament — but stopped short of calling for Spain to release him.
Oriol Junqueras was elected as an MEP in the May EU election but was already in prison, awaiting trial for his role in an outlawed independence referendum the Catalan government held in October 2017.
Spain blocked Junqueras, the former vice president of Catalonia, from taking his seat, saying under national law he needed to swear an oath to the Spanish constitution. The Supreme Court disallowed him from leaving jail in order to do so.
In its ruling on Thursday, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg found that Junqueras should have enjoyed the immunity afforded to members of the European Parliament from the moment the EU election results were declared.
The ruling could have significant ramifications for Junqueras and two fellow Catalan independence leaders who were also elected to the European Parliament but have been barred from taking their seats.
"A person who is elected to the European Parliament acquires the status of Member of Parliament as a result of and from the time of the declaration of the election results," the court stated in a press release.
EU law states that MEPs are protected by immunity "from any measure of detention and from legal proceedings" during their time in office.
The court stipulated that if a country believes an MEP should be kept in prison, it is up to the European Parliament to decide whether to uphold their immunity. In Junqueras' case, this is complicated by the fact he has now been convicted. Spain's Supreme Court has suspended the full imposition of the sentence against him while awaiting guidance from the CJEU.
In October, Spain's Supreme Court jailed Junqueras for 13 years for his role in the 2017 outlawed independence referendum. Junqueras, the highest ranking Catalan official to face trial, was found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds and was also banned from holding public office for 13 years.
He has been behind bars since his arrest in November 2017, meaning he was detained for over 16 months before the trial began in February this year.
The European court stated that, once elected, MEPs benefit from immunity to travel. It said that this immunity "entails lifting any measure of provisional detention imposed prior to the declaration of that Member’s election, in order to allow that person to travel to and take part in the inaugural session of the European Parliament."
Eight other independence leaders, five of whom were ministers in the same government as Junqueras, also received prison sentences of up to 12 years each.
The European Court of Justice ruling, although it only concerned Junqueras' case, may prove significant for Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's former president, and the former Catalan health minister Toni Comín, who were also elected as MEPs this year but have avoided imprisonment by fleeing to Belgium.
Puigdemont hailed the ruling on Twitter, saying "There are still judges in Europe" and accusing Spain of seeking to alter European democracy. Puigdemont's lawyer Gonzalo Boye wrote: "We were right ... the status of MEP, and the immunity, come from the election result and not from the Spanish Electoral Commission." He called on the Supreme Court to release Junqueras.
Junqueras' Twitter account declared: "Justice has come from Europe."
Puigdemont and Comín will continue contesting Spain's bid to extradite them in the new year. Spain's Supreme Court issued a new European arrest warrant for Puigdemont in October.
The judgment comes five weeks after a nonbinding opinion from ECJ Advocate General Maciej Szpunar also said that Spain was wrong to prevent Junqueras from taking his seat in the European Parliament by setting additional bureaucratic requirements for him.