Spain has issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for the deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four former regional ministers.

This appears to be a nakedly political use of the EAW and the Interpol system. The use of extradition to silence and pressurise political opponents is straight out of the playbook of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or, in fact, any of the bastions of human rights such as Ukraine, Turkey or Venezuela.

Inside the EU such brazen contempt for international law is rare but not unheard of. Outside the EU it is commonplace — take for instance President Erdogan of Turkey stating that he will “cut the heads off” those who oppose him and continuing a purge of Turkish civil society reminiscent of Stalin. Erdogan has sought the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the US and, in a display of extraordinary excess, placed tens of thousands of people on the Interpol list, the largest upload of wanted persons. Many of those accused are alleged to be plotting with Mr Gülen to overthrow the government. Few if any can be genuine requests.

Spain is not there yet, but is close. The EAW system relies on a strong bond of mutual trust and recognition between EU partners, but its use for political purposes weakens that relationship and means courts will inspect requests with even greater scrutiny.

Spain has a history of making political points by using extradition — it was, after all, the Spanish government that requested that the UK extradite General Augusto Pinochet so that he could face trial in Spain for what he had done in Chile. In 2015 a Spanish judge decided to try and singlehandedly solve the Rwandan genocide prosecutions by issuing an EAW for General Karenzi Karake, the Rwandan intelligence chief,when the UK was considering the extradition of five other Rwandan men accused of genocide.

Most recently Spain asked Austria to extradite Dmytro Firtash, the Ukrainian oligarch and ally of the former president Viktor Yanukovych. Mr Firtash has been facing long-running and highly publicised extradition proceedings to the US for allegations of fraud. The EAW was thrown out of court in Vienna because Spain did not provide sufficient information.

Much of the criticism of the EAW revolves around the fact that no evidence needs to be put forward when extradition is requested. Mutual trust and recognition of our EU partners not to abuse the system should be enough. But even members of the EU can and do misuse the EAW.

When and if Brexit happens the plan for the EAW is opaque; the UK will try to keep it, but may not succeed. One of the arguments for more evidence being provided is that it is harder to make up the evidence in a political case. In my experience the reverse is true — political prosecutions often involve far greater resources and sophistication, resulting in detailed fabricated allegations designed to discredit and besmirch the reputations of those requested. Rather than a request for prosecution, from the outside it looks as if Spain is becoming just like Russia in pursuit of its political opponents. 

This article was originally published on the Times website on Thursday 9 November 2017, and the full article can be accessed on the Times' website here.