BRUSSELS – As members of the Catalan regional government spent their first night in jail in Spain, ousted president Carles Puigdemont was weighing his legal options in hiding in Belgium.
Extradition requests between European Union countries are usually a simple affair because they recognize each other's laws, but Puigdemont's case is rare and could be hampered by political considerations.
"We have to admit that because this is a very special case it could pose political questions," said Maxime Chome, a lawyer and legal expert at Brussels Free University. "It's not an arrest warrant for a drug trafficker, which would be the more typical kind."
What is clear is that if Spain issues a European arrest warrant for him, Puigdemont would have to be quickly brought before a Belgian judge.
"He must be heard within 24 hours by an investigating judge who will explain the motives for the European arrest warrant, to say that he has the right to a lawyer and also to offer for him to voluntarily return to Spain, something that he can also refuse to do," Chome told The Associated Press.
One challenge, Chome said, is to decide what type of offenses and charges will be listed in the warrant, as Belgium does not have the equivalent charges of sedition and rebellion that Puigdemont and his associates could face. But there is a legal equivalent for embezzlement, another of the possible charges pending in Spain.
"For a European arrest warrant to be issued, the offense has to be more or less the same in Belgian law and in Spanish law. Sedition and rebellion, there isn't really the same thing in the Belgian penal code, but there is an offense for misuse of public funds,"Chome said.
Misuse of funds could be chosen if the Spanish authorities consider that Puigdemont illegally used public money to hold the outlawed independence referendum on Oct. 1.
The legal procedure could take time, and it means that Puigdemont would remain in Belgium, as he would not necessarily have to appear in a Spanish court.
"The Spanish courts really want him to go to Spain. But there are other possibilities. He could be given the right to stay here and be heard by the Belgian courts ... possibly with the participation of a Spanish judge," Chome said.
He added that, despite the case's profound political implications, the legal procedure in Belgium should be free of political interference.
"The idea behind the European arrest warrant, which entered force on Jan. 1, 2004, is that there is no longer any political power that can say whether a person can stay or not. It's the courts that take charge. In this case, it will be a judicial procedure," he said, adding that Puigdemont would be able to appeal.
Puigdemont's lawyer said Thursday that any asylum request is now off the table, and Chome agreed that it would be difficult for the ousted Catalan leader's representatives to establish that his rights would be violated if he went back to Spain.
"It's always possible to request asylum, but given that Spain is in the European Union it's expected to respect fundamental rights like every other European Union member country," Chome said.