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Spain drops sedition charge against ex-Catalan leader

The Spanish Supreme Court on Thursday dropped sedition charges against former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont over a failed 2017 independence bid that sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Spain drops sedition charge against ex-Catalan leader
Exiled former Catalan leader and member of European Parliament Carles Puigdemont. Photo: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

But the court maintained lesser charges of misuse of public funds and disobedience against Puigdemont, who lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain and holds a seat in the European Parliament.

The move follows a reform of Spain’s criminal code in December that abolished the offence of sedition and replaced it with the charge of public disorder, which carries softer penalties.

The reform – fiercely opposed by the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) – also lowered the penalty for misuse of public funds.

Both offences were used against Catalan leaders who staged a 2017 independence referendum deemed illegal by the courts, followed by a unilateral declaration of independence for the wealthy northeast region.

Puigdemont, who headed the Catalan government at the time of the independence push, now potentially faces a shorter prison term if he is convicted than was the case before the sedition charge was dropped.

Controversial reform

Speaking in Brussels late Thursday, Puigdemont said he would not return to Spain until the question of his immunity was resolved by the European justice system, insisting he would never appear before a Spanish judge “in handcuffs”.

The Supreme Court in 2019 sentenced former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras to 13 years behind bars for sedition and misuse of public funds for his role in the separatist push.

Since taking power in June 2018, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has sought to defuse the conflict in Catalonia.

In 2021, he pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were convicted over their roles in the separatist push.

Analysts say the criminal code reform, which came into effect on Thursday, is part of an attempt to win support in vote-rich Catalonia ahead of Spain’s general election later this year.

It is also seen as a bid to assure the continued support of Catalan separatist party ERC for Sanchez’s minority government in tight parliamentary votes.

‘Red carpet’

The main opposition PP has denounced the reform as “tailor-made for convicts”. Some of Sánchez’s own Socialists have also been critical.

Top PP official Elias Bendodo on Thursday accused Sánchez of “laying out the red carpet” for Puigdemont’s return.

But the government’s main spokesperson, Isabel Rodríguez, defended the reform, saying it brought Spanish law in line with European norms.

Puigdemont and a number of his separatist colleagues fled to Belgium in October 2017, fearing arrest after the failed independence bid. He became a member of the European Parliament in June 2019.

Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena said Thursday he would submit a new extradition request to Belgian authorities for Puigdemont to face trial on the lesser charges, pending EU courts’ rulings on whether Puigdemont has immunity as a European lawmaker.

Belgium has so far denied Spain’s extradition request for Puigdemont, and it was not clear how having the charge of sedition dropped would affect the chances of him being sent back by Belgian officials.

Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, told reporters he was “convinced” his client would soon be able to return to Spain, adding he expected European courts would confirm he has immunity at the end of February or in March.

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POLITICS

Spanish government to alter sexual consent law to fix loopholes

Spain's leftwing government said Monday it was looking to modify a landmark law to fight sexual violence to close a loophole that has let some convicted offenders reduce their sentences.

Spanish government to alter sexual consent law to fix loopholes

Since the law came into force in October, around 20 offenders have reportedly been released and 300 others have seen their sentences reduced.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party has announced plans to reform the law.

“In the coming days, we will present a draft bill, a meticulous text that will provide a response and a solution to these undesired effects which we obviously don’t want to see repeated in the future,” said Education Minister Pilar Alegria, who is also party spokeswoman.

“Logically, the best way to specifically address these undesired effects would be to increase the penalties for sexual offenders,” she told reporters.

READ ALSO – ‘Only yes means yes’: Spain tightens sexual consent law

The controversy erupted barely six weeks after the entry into force of the “Only yes means yes” law, which reformed the criminal code in a bid to define all non-consensual sex as rape.

The overall aim of the law was to shift the focus in cases of sexual violence from the victims’ resistance to a women’s free and clearly expressed consent.

To this end, the charge of sexual abuse was dropped and everything was grouped under sexual assault. The range of penalties was widened to include all possibilities under that single term.

READ ALSO: How Spain is trying to fix its new trouble-ridden sexual consent law

The law effectively reduces the minimum and the maximum punishment in certain specific cases and hundreds have applied to have their sentences revised.

‘Consent must remain at the centre’

Over the weekend, reports that the government was mulling changes to the law prompted tensions between the ruling Socialists and their hard-left junior coalition partner Podemos, which has championed the legislation.

The right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) had quickly moved to offer parliamentary support if the Socialists wanted to push through the changes without Podemos.

But Podemos reacted angrily. Equality Minister Irene Montero warned that such a move would mean the law reverting to its original format and she vowed to do “whatever necessary” to ensure consent was kept at the centre.

Her stance was hammered home by party leader Ione Belarra on Monday morning. “Consent has to remain at the heart of the criminal code. We can’t go back to the evidentiary ordeal of proving we resisted enough or that we hadn’t been drinking,” tweeted Belarra, the social rights minister.

Socialist ministers insisted the planned changes would merely address the loopholes and would not touch the issue of consent.

“The correction and modification of the law is designed to avoid any undesired outcomes in the future and the issue of consent will remain at the centre of the law against sexual assault so that women avoid enduring the ordeal of proof in court,” cabinet minister Felix Bolanos, a close Sánchez aide, told reporters.

Until now, rape victims had needed to prove they were subjected to violence or intimidation. Without that, the offence was considered “sexual abuse” and carried lighter penalties than rape.

With “sexual abuse” dropped from the reformed criminal code and a much wider range of offences grouped under “sexual assault”, a broader range of penalties was required to ensure proportionality.

At the weekend, Montero said it was only a “minority” of judges who had applied the law incorrectly.

She said there were similar teething problems with Spain’s landmark 2004 domestic violence legislation, the first in Europe, which faced “almost 200 questions” about its legality in the first years after it was passed.

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