LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Belgium can’t be forced to extradite a Spanish rapper convicted of glorifying terrorism until it determines if his lyrics are a crime under Belgian law, the European Union’s top court ruled Tuesday.
“The executing judicial authority is under the responsibility to examine the criterion of double criminality of the act,” the European Court of Justice wrote in its ruling, allowing a Belgian court to decide whether rapper Valtonyc’s lyrics really constitute threats and incitement of terror.
The 26-year-old rapper, whose real name is José Miguel Arenas Beltran, was arrested in 2012 for lyrics such as “The king has a rendezvous at the village square, with a noose around his neck” and “We want death for these pigs,” in songs posted to YouTube and music-sharing sites.
He was eventually sentenced to a three and a half year in jail for insulting the king, glorifying terrorism and making threats. He fled Spain the day before he was due to start his sentence.
His arrest and sentencing sparked a debate in Spain about freedom of speech and expression. Arenas Beltran is the first musician to be charged with insulting the monarchy since the fall of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The country has seen an uptick in arrests and charges for crimes like “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliation of terrorist victims,” for making jokes on social media, music lyrics and, in one notable case, in a puppet show. Amnesty International has called the laws “draconian.”
Arenas Beltran turned himself in to Belgian authorities after Spain issued a European Arrest Warrant for him. The court then refused to extradite him on the grounds that the charges he faced in Spain weren’t crimes under Belgian law. The prosecutor in the case appealed that decision and the court referred the case to the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice.
Under the legal concept of double criminality, governments can refuse to surrender a person wanted by another state if the crime they are charged with isn’t a crime in the jurisdiction they are in.
The European Arrest Warrant system, which came into effect in 2004, streamlined the previous process, which required member states to negotiate their own extradition arrangements with one another. Since there are no border controls between the 27 member states of the political and economic union, the European Arrest Warrant system allows for fast-tracking of extradition for certain serious crimes that carry a penalty of three or more years in prison.
At the time that Arenas Beltran was arrested, incitement of terrorism only carried a two-year penalty. That was changed to three years in 2015. The Luxembourg-based court ruled that a fast-track warrant must be based on the penalty at the time of arrest, meaning Arenas Beltran’s extradition need not be automatic and the Belgian court can examine the charges against him.
Belgium has a history of sheltering Spanish fugitives. The same court in Ghent previously refused to extradite María Natividad Jáuregui Espina, a member of the Basque separatist movement who is wanted in Spain for her role in a 1981 bombing that killed three members of the Spanish military.
Carles Puigdemont also fled to Belgium after Madrid issued an arrest warrant for the separatist leader after the Catalan region declared independence from Spain after a referendum in 2017. Arenas Beltran is represented by the same legal team as Puigdemont.
The European Arrest Warrant system has come under fire from the United Kingdom, which formally left the European Union at the beginning of this year. The British government said in a statement Monday that it intends to withdraw from the arrangement. “The negotiation gives an opportunity to do things better,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
Arenas Beltran was unavailable for comment but he tweeted, “Good morning and fuck Spain,” and then thanked his lawyers after the ruling was announced.
The case will now return to Belgium, where the Court of Ghent will decide if the rapper’s songs warrant extradition to Spain.