A German court ruled on Thursday that Catalonia’s former leader, Carles Puigdemont, can be extradited to Spain, but only on fraud charges and not for rebellion, the main charge he faced in Spain after Catalonia’s botched declaration of independence last year.
The decision is a setback for the Spanish judiciary, which had hoped the German court would allow Mr. Puigdemont to stand trial on a rebellion charge, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.
Under the lesser charge of corruption related to the misuse of public money, Mr. Puigdemont could still be sentenced to prison. But if such financial crime sentences are two years or less, they are normally suspended in Spain for first-time offenders.
Mr. Puigdemont is accused of misusing public money to organize an illegal independence referendum on Oct. 1, when he was president of the restive region. Two dozen other Catalan politicians are also facing trial; some are being held in prison, while a handful of others are fighting extradition.
The German court’s decision is the latest twist in a complicated legal battle that gained an international dimension last October, when Mr. Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain, alongside some other members of his former cabinet.
They left shortly after Madrid used emergency constitutional powers to oust Mr. Puigdemont’s administration and place Catalonia under direct rule. In March, while traveling by car from Finland to Belgium, Mr. Puigdemont was arrested by the German police on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge.
In Thursday’s ruling, the German high court of the state of Schleswig-Holstein also ruled that Mr. Puigdemont did not represent a flight risk and therefore should not be taken into police custody before being sent back to Spain.
No date has been set for extradition, but it is expected to happen soon, according to Wiebke Hoffelner, a Schleswig-Holstein state prosecutor.
Mr. Puigdemont could take the difficult route of lodging an appeal before Germany’s constitutional court, if his lawyers can convince the court that his basic human rights were violated. In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Puigdemont’s lawyers said they were considering how to proceed.
Pablo Llarena, the Spanish Supreme Court judge who is presiding over the trial against Mr. Puigdemont and other Catalan politicians, has said that Spain’s judiciary could take the case to the European Court of Justice if Germany blocked Mr. Puigdemont’s extradition on the charges sought by Madrid. There was no immediate response from Judge Llarena to the German decision.
The court’s decision is in line with a preliminary ruling in April, which found that the rebellion charge could not be honored in Germany “because evidence of ‘violence’ is not present.” Violence is a component of the charge in Spain’s legal code.
Since then, however, Spain’s political landscape has changed considerably. A Socialist government took office in Madrid last month, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. His predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, had vehemently opposed Catalonia’s separatist movement, and moved to block an effort to re-elect Mr. Puigdemont as the region’s leader in May.
Mr. Sánchez said on Thursday that his government respected judicial decisions. And although he did not weigh in on whether extradition on the rebellion charge should also have been allowed, he said at a news conference that Spanish society “expected the people involved in the events of the second half of 2017 to be judged by Spanish courts.” He added: “This will happen.”
Writing on Twitter, Mr. Puigdemont welcomed the decision by the German court to strike down “the main lie of the state” by not recognizing the independence referendum as an act of rebellion.
And Quim Torra, who leads a separatist coalition that formed a new Catalan regional government in June, called the German ruling “great news.” He added: “Today the fictitious narrative of the Spanish state has fallen apart.”
On Monday, Mr. Torra visited Madrid to meet with Mr. Sánchez for the first time, an encounter that both men described as positive. The prime minister had previously vowed to “find a political solution to a political crisis” and return to the negotiating table.
Mr. Sánchez, whose weak Socialist government relies in part on support from the Catalan parties, has also allowed the jailed Catalan politicians to be transferred from Madrid to prisons within their region.
In Barcelona, Mr. Torra is also in a fragile position: His unwieldy coalition of separatist parties appears to have run out of political options after the failed independence effort.
Mr. Puigdemont’s return to Spain and a trial of the main Catalan separatist leaders could potentially prolong a dispute that has raised broader concerns about the rule of law in the European Union. On Thursday, some center-right politicians in Spain questioned the purpose of a European arrest warrant if courts in different countries did not apply the same criteria.
When Mr. Puigdemont arrived in Brussels last October, he said his goal was to make Spain’s territorial conflict an international issue and bring Catalonia into “the institutional heart of Europe,” as Brussels is home to the most important institutions of the European Union.
His lawyers said in their statement on Thursday that Mr. Puigdemont was only “being sought for criminal prosecution by the Spanish authorities because he enabled a democratic referendum to take place as instructed by his voters.”
“We are convinced that Germany should not play any part in the criminalization of democratic acts of this kind,” they added, “and that it should stay out of the highly charged domestic disputes of other states.”
Raphael Minder reported from Madrid, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.