Catalan separatist politicians win new EU legal victory

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Catalonia’s former regional president Carles Puigdemont speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. In a potentially stinging reversal for Spanish justice authorities, the European Union’s top court ruled Thursday that former Catalan regional Vice-President Oriol Junqueras, serving a prison sentence for his role in a banned independence referendum two years ago, had the right to parliamentary immunity when he was on trial. The case is likely to set an important precedent for Puigdemont, who is living in exile in Belgium. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top court on Friday overturned a decision preventing fugitive former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont from taking a seat in the European Parliament, in a fresh legal victory for secessionist politicians from the Spanish region.

In July, Puigdemont and former Catalan health minister Toni Comin appealed to the EU’s General Court after the Spanish justice authorities effectively disqualified them from sitting in the assembly despite winning seats in the May European elections.

But the court rejected their request. It found that because the Spanish authorities didn’t include their names on a list of lawmakers sent to the EU assembly, “the applicants were not officially declared as elected.”

However, the higher European Court of Justice said Friday that the decision “is annulled and the matter referred back to the General Court to be re-examined.”

Puigdemont and Comin have been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since they fled Spain in 2017 as some of their associates were jailed over a banned independence referendum in Catalonia. Spain has issued warrants for their arrest, but they have launched a legal appeal against the move.

In a symbolic move after the decision was made public, Puigdemont and Comin entered the European Parliament in Brussels and toured the vast room where sessions are held. The assembly was closed and lawmakers had already returned to their home countries as this week’s plenary session took place in Strasbourg, France and ended on Thursday.

“It is important for this situation to be resolved before the holidays,” Puigdemont told reporters. He said he wants the parliament to explain “what mechanisms it has to compensate the European citizens that have been without representation for the past six months.”

“Each minute counts because they are violating our rights,” he said.

Puigdemont and Comin had official EU lawmakers access badges made up for them during the tour.

“We have walked out as European Parliament members,” a beaming Puigdemont said as he showed the badge to reporters.

Spanish government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said that even though Puigdemont has moved one step closer to becoming a EU lawmaker, he still is a fugitive since fleeing after the failed 2017 breakaway bid and faces extradition.

“For Spanish justice and I believe for justice in general, Puigdemont has a pending case that obviously he will have to face,” Celaa said.

The banned referendum, which came amid a police crackdown, sparked one of Spain’s biggest political crises in decades and protests continue in the relatively wealthy northeast region of 7.5 million people. Polls and recent elections show that Catalans are roughly equally split by the secession question. Spaniards as a whole are strongly against it.

The ECJ decision comes a day after it ruled that former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who is serving a prison sentence for his role in the banned referendum, had the right to parliamentary immunity when he was on trial.

The Luxembourg-based court said that people like Junqueras who are elected as EU lawmakers “enjoy, from the moment the results are declared, the immunity” to travel to and take part in parliamentary sessions.

After that verdict, Junqueras tweeted: “Justice has come from Europe. Our rights and those of 2,000,000 citizens who voted for us have been violated. Annulment of the sentence and freedom for all! Persist as we have done!”

Junqueras was sentenced in October to 13 years in prison for sedition. Eleven of his associates were found guilty and eight of them also received prison terms.

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Mark Carlson in Brussels and Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.

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