In early October, some 2 million people in Spain’s northeastern breakaway region of Catalonia voted in favor of a referendum for independence. A few weeks later, Catalan lawmakers announced that Catalonia was officially an independent state.
That didn’t go over too well in Madrid, where Spanish officials had denounced the referendum vote and called it illegal. So Spain’s central government immediately dismissed some 140 Catalan officials — including the regional president, Carles Puigdemont. Then Madrid imposed direct rule over the region.
“I say this both calmly and firmly: There will be no referendum; it won’t happen,” then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had said ahead of the vote.
In the chaotic aftermath of the disputed referendum, Puigdemont went into exile in Belgium. But in March, while passing through Germany, officials there detained the Catalan leader on a European arrest warrant.
Spanish officials wanted him extradited from Germany to face charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds. Violent protests broke out in Catalonia over his arrest, injuring dozens of people.
But on Thursday, a German court ruled that although Puigdemont could be extradited, it could only be to face the lesser charge in a Spanish court. The court declined to extradite him on the basis of rebellion because it found that the Spanish charge of “rebellion” did not amount to the German charge of “high treason.”
“We have defeated the main lie upheld by the state [Spain],” Puigdemont tweeted after the ruling. “German justice denies that the referendum on October 1 was rebellion.”
His legal team in Germany said in a statement that Spain is seeking to prosecute him only “because he enabled a democratic referendum to take place as instructed by his voters.”
Puigdemont could still be extradited on the corruption charge, and even that could earn him up to eight years in prison. Still, that’s significantly less than the 25 years he could have served if he were found guilty of rebellion.
“We are convinced that Germany should not play any part in the criminalization of democratic acts of this kind, and that it should stay out of the highly charged domestic disputes of other states,” his lawyers’ statement said. A number of Puigdemont’s colleagues who stayed in Spain after last fall’s political crisis are still in prison.
In May, Quim Torra, a close ally of Puigdemont, was sworn in as Catalonia’s new president. This week, he visited Scotland, which itself held a failed independence vote in 2014. He called its referendum “an example for the world,” the Guardian reported.