Lawyers in London, Barcelona, and Paris acting for three detained Catalan independence leaders have appealed to the United Nations, claiming the men are unlawfully imprisoned.
Submissions have been presented to the UN working group on arbitrary detention, asking it to intervene in the cases of the ousted vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, and the Catalan civil society group chiefs Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez.
Any determination made by the body, which meets in Geneva, will not be binding on Spanish courts but will be a signal of international disapproval.
Two years ago, the working group declared that Julian Assange, who remains in Ecuador’s London embassy, was being “arbitrarily detained”.
Cuixart is president of Òmnium Cultural and Sànchez is a former president of the influential Catalan national assembly. They were arrested in October after the independence referendum, while Junqueras was detained early the following month. They have been in prison since then.
Ben Emmerson QC, who represents the men, told a press conference in London on Thursday: “Spain [has] brought unsustainable charges of sedition and rebellion against Catalonia’s leaders … Their detention by Spain is an affront to human rights, designed to prevent them from performing their role as political representatives of the Catalan people.
“This case does not ask the UN to adjudicate on the issue of Catalan independence, but seeks the UN’s reaffirmation that governments cannot repress political dissent through arbitrary detention.”
Their imprisonment “falls foul of international law”, he said, and the trio was being denied freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom to participate in public life.
“Imagine if the UK imprisoned the leaders of the SNP for advocating independence for Scotland. These detentions are arbitrary and belong to a bygone era of Spanish history,” Emmerson said.
“If you go around imprisoning those who advocate political change, then you are undermining the foundations of democracy.”
The 26-page document sent to the UN working body is the “first salvo in a systematic and wide-ranging legal campaign” aimed at releasing the imprisoned men, he said.
Rachel Lindon, a barrister accredited to the Paris and Madrid bars, said: “The Spanish authorities are acting like a dictatorship, imprisoning their political opponents and refusing to release them until they renounce their political beliefs and abandon their roles.”
A case on behalf of the men cannot be taken directly to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg until all legal remedies within Spain have been exhausted.
The lawyers are not acting for the deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain for Belgium before he could be arrested.
Puigdemont faces arrest on possible charges of sedition, rebellion, and misuse of public funds the moment he sets foot in Spain. But he remains the sole candidate for the Catalan presidency following December’s regional election, in which the three pro-independence parties retained their majority.
On Thursday, Junqueras suggested that it might be possible for Puigdemont to serve as president in a symbolic capacity, even though the Spanish government bitterly opposes his return to office.
Were Puigdemont to be sworn in again, Junqueras said in an interview with the online newspaper Diario16, there could be “a legitimate if symbolic, presidency” that worked in tandem with a day-to-day executive in Catalonia.
The Catalan parliament was due to hold a presidential investiture debate on Tuesday, but the session was postponed by the speaker in the wake of a ruling by Spain’s constitutional court that Puigdemont would have to attend in person.
The splits among the pro-independence camp were laid bare earlier this week after a Spanish TV programme published private messages in which Puigdemont said his push for independence was over and complained that he had been “sacrificed” by his own side.
Puigdemont admitted writing the messages but said they had been sent in a moment of doubt, adding that he would continue his bid to reclaim the presidency.