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Olivier Peter, lawyer to jailed Catalan activist, interviewed by Michael Smith

Michael Smith interviews Olivier Peter about his client Jordi Cuixart who, though innocent, faces 17 years prison on spurious charges of rebellion and sedition

ON FEBRUARY 12, a criminal trial of twelve Catalan independence leaders, ten of them elected representatives, commenced before the Spanish Supreme Court. Though it is dressed up as a judicial process clearly it has political motivations and implications.

It is clear there are systemic problems with the Spanish legal system. Village interviewed Olivier Peter, a Geneva-based lawyer representing an activist jailed 17 months ago without bail on implausible charges of rebellion and sedition.

Jordi Cuixart, a long-time activist, pacifist and human rights defender is President of Omnium Cultural which is a cultural and civil rights organisation, not funded by government, with 160,000 members.

Olivier Peter is a Swiss lawyer who says he got involved when he received an invitation to visit Cuixart in prison.

“We had a long discussion on political trials and the international dimension of the case, and here I am”. After the referendum on Catalan independence in 2017 Peter says Cuixart was arrested: “He was ordered before a tribunal and sent to prison without bail. 17 months later he’s still in jail”. The charges were rebellion and sedition, “for participating in a demonstration and calling people to participate in the referendum. The charge said that on October 1 2017, the day of the referendum, voters built a ‘human wall’” and threw themselves against the Spanish officials and Spanish institutions. But there was no violence from the Catalan side and numerous media outlets have published a video of Cuixart climbing on top of a car to ask demonstrators to remain peaceful. It went around the world.

This violence narrative continues to be spread by the Spanish government and parts of the press.

The Spanish prosecutor is seeking a 17-year jail sentence.

Peter says fundamentally the Spanish court is conducting itself illegally:
“Firstly, it is judging activists when the Court is only competent to try elected representatives. And even when trying elected representatives, such as Carles Puigdemont, it is only allowed to do so if there is an “external” angle, which it is contriving by looking to the role of international observers in the independence referendum. It seems willing to convict people for exercising their fundamental rights to demonstrate and protest. And it is not allowing them the right to appeal the conviction”.

The Supreme Court is a “tribunal d’exception”. Peter considers that there is a problem with its composition. GRECCO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body, has criticised Spain for the lack of judicial independence in the appointment of judges, in particular the appointment of judges with ties to the Partido Popular (PP), which was voted out of power last year. Some of the judges leading the case are particularly well-known for their political links. He says that “Many of its judges have been chosen because of their ideology and their links to Spanish unionist parties. As recognised by the Senate spokeperson of the Partido Popular, the Party’controls the Criminal Chamber from behind’”. There are significant procedural flaws in the running of the case. Cuixart was given only six working days to prepare the trial. The Court has contrived to hear the matter which normally would be heard in a regional court on the spurious basis that, since the events in question affect Spain as a whole, it will hear the case as it is the highest court in the land: the Supreme Court.

Peter again emphasises that as a lawyer his concern is not politics or independence, it is legal propriety and human rights.

“This is not about independence, it is about democracy and human rights. 41 French senators called for a political and not judiciary solution last week and we hope that more European democrats will ask Spain to respect human rights”.

Several UN special rapporteurs have called on Spain to respect human rights, though perhaps the most shocking thing is the failure of the European Union and its members to express concern. Nevertheless Peter says he has “no doubt that if Catalans leaders are convicted, the European Court of Human rights would condemn Spain”.

Most of the Spanish media has not covered the trial properly. As to what Spain should do now, Peter says it should “Do what Amnesty, Front Line Defenders, the World Organisation Against Torture and the overwhelming majority of Catalan society are asking: drop the charges and immediately free the prisoners”. He thinks the EU should denounce human rights violations by a Member State.

Ultimately Peter says, “This is a political trial. The conviction sentence has already been written. But we keep faith in civil society and international opinion. With enough pressure, things can change”.