(CN) — Europe's highest court shook up Spanish politics Thursday, ruling that an imprisoned Catalan political leader was entitled to immunity after he was elected to the European Parliament in May.
The European Court of Justice found that Oriol Junqueras, an imprisoned leader of Catalonia's pro-independence movement, should have been allowed by Spanish authorities to take his seat in the European Parliament after voters elected him in May. Members of the European Union's Parliament — the bloc’s only democratically elected body — enjoy immunity.
The court's decision renews calls for the release of Junqueras, who is serving a 13-year sentence for his role in what Spain called an illegal Catalan independence referendum in 2017. He and other Catalan leaders were convicted by the Spanish Supreme Court in October of sedition and misuse of funds. The Supreme Court forbade him from holding public office for the duration of his sentence.
"Justice has come from Europe,” Junqueras said on Twitter after the ruling. He said his rights had been violated and he demanded to be released.
But the Court of Justice did not call on Spain to set Junqueras free, and stuck strictly to the issue of immunity.
The ruling, a copy of which is not available in English, was viewed as a victory for two other pro-independence Catalan leaders who fled Spain to avoid imprisonment after the secessionist drive was crushed by Spanish authorities. Those politicians — former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and former Catalan Health Minister Antoni Comín — also were elected to the European Parliament in May but were not allowed to take their seats after Spain refused to acknowledge their victories.
It remained unclear Thursday if they would be allowed to take their seats in the European Parliament. Both have cases pending before the Court of Justice.
Spain's Supreme Court said it would study the decision in depth and give Spanish prosecutors and Junqueras and his attorneys five days to study its implications and present their arguments. The prosecutor's office said it opposed releasing Junqueras.
Puigdemont hailed the ruling.
“Democracy, the vote of the people, has won against authoritarian forces,” he said on Twitter. “See you (soon) at the European Parliament.”
Spain requires newly elected European Parliament members to swear an oath to the Spanish Constitution, but Junqueras was not allowed to leave prison to take his oath, and Puigdemont and Comín did not return to Spain for fear of being arrested.
The ruling has wider implications for Spanish politics because Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez is in talks with Junqueras’ party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, about the formation of a new government. Sánchez needs to win the support of Junqueras’ party to become prime minister.
"There's the narrow legal side, but there is the wider political context,” said Andrew Dowling, a Spanish history lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.
He said Sánchez needs the support of 13 parliamentary members of Junqueras’ party “to ensure there is stability in the government” and he expects Sánchez to do whatever he can to avoid new elections.
Due to the country’s political instability, Spanish voters went to the polls in April and November and voters may not be in the mood for another election. The far-right Vox party saw its share of the votes increase in each election and it would likely gain even more votes in a third one.
"I think there will be a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes to find a political solution,” Dowling said.
He said the Republican Left of Catalonia will push Sánchez to make concessions on opening negotiations about Catalan independence and freeing the imprisoned Catalan leaders.
"The question of the prisoners is an open wound, and I think Esquerra [the Republican Left] can't walk away with nothing, so I think there has to be some gesture by Sánchez,” Dowling said. “Sanchez in my view will have to take a political risk, including [looking at] pardons.”
Under Spanish law, a prime minister has the power to issue pardons.
In a news release, the Court of Justice said Junqueras acquired immunity from the moment he was elected to the European Parliament and Spain announced the results.
The court said the immunity should have allowed Junqueras to “take part in the inaugural session of the newly elected European Parliament” in July and take his seat. Spain did not allow him to do that.
The ruling said parliamentary immunity “entails lifting any measure of provisional detention imposed” on a newly elected parliamentarian. In other words, the ruling said Spain should have released him from jail so he could take his seat in the European Parliament.
It said Spain should have asked the European Parliament to waive Junqueras’ immunity if it wanted to keep him in detention.
Catalonia’s bid to become an independent nation remains one of Spain's most explosive political topics.
On Wednesday, pro-independence Catalans clashed with police at a soccer match between archrivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. Matches between these teams, two of the world's best clubs, are known as el clásico.
Barcelona's soccer team has become a symbol for Catalan independence, while Real Madrid fans tend to oppose separatist sentiment. During the match, many Barcelona fans held up signs stating: “Spain, sit and talk.” That is a reference to Catalan demands that Spain begin negotiations about independence.
Protesters set bins on fire and threw rocks and glass bottles at police, who shot foam bullets at the demonstrators. More than 40 people were injured in the clashes and police arrested five. The game was viewed by 650 million people worldwide, 100,000 of them in Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium. The game had been postponed from Oct. 26 due to previous violent protests.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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