Skip to main content

Former Catalan education minister Clara Ponsati, centre, reacts as a Catalan pro-independence Estelada flag is flown behind her, after attending Edinburgh Sheriff Court in Edinburgh on July 23, 2018.NEIL HANNA/Getty Images

Clara Ponsati typically spends her days studying game theory and teaching economics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. But in the past few months, Dr. Ponsati has emerged as an unlikely hero for Scottish nationalists who have rallied to her side in a prolonged legal drama centred on the struggle for independence in Catalonia.

Dr. Ponsati, who was born in Barcelona, briefly served in the Catalan government last year and is among six former regional leaders wanted by the Spanish government on treason charges for organizing an independence referendum in Catalonia last October. While 90 per cent of voters backed sovereignty, Madrid declared the referendum illegal, dissolved the regional government and issued European arrest warrants for its former cabinet ministers.

Dr. Ponsati jumped in a car and drove to France before making her way back to Scotland.

Her extradition battle has become a cause célèbre for students and the Scottish independence movement, which views Catalan separatists as kindred spirits. There have been several demonstrations at the university in support of her legal fight, and gold ribbons have been tied to many of the city’s lamp posts and fences in her honour. More than £200,000 ($345,000) was raised in less than 24 hours to help pay her legal bills.

On Monday, she won a key victory when a Scottish court formally dropped Spain’s extradition warrant, capping a political journey made all the more difficult by the loss of her 25-year-old son to cancer. She hailed the ruling as “a humiliating defeat for the Spanish state,” adding, "I am just determined to keep fighting for the freedom of all political prisoners, for civil rights in Catalonia and Spain and for the Republic of Catalonia.”

The decision came after the Spanish Supreme Court withdrew all the European arrest warrants when a German court ruled last week that they did not conform to German law. The ruling meant it was likely that Britain and other European Union member states would come to similar conclusions. The exiled leaders could still be extradited to Spain on other charges related to the referendum, including misuse of public funds. And they will be arrested for treason if they return to Spain on their own.

Dr. Ponsati hardly looks like a revolutionary. She’s a 61-year-old economist who has spent decades in academia. Although sympathetic to the independence cause in Catalonia, she had largely stayed out of politics and only joined the regional government in July, 2017, at the urging of its leader, Carles Puigdemont. She took a leave of absence from St. Andrews and became Catalonia’s councillor for education, a largely ceremonial post that did not require her to be an elected member of parliament. She wasn’t directly involved in preparations for the Oct. 1 referendum but supported the initiative.

The government in Madrid made it clear the vote was unauthorized and sent thousands of national police to stop people from voting, leading to several violent clashes. Although just 42 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, the government of Catalonia declared independence, prompting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government to dissolve the regional legislature and arrest the cabinet ministers.

Nine former ministers are now in jail in Spain, but Dr. Ponsati and five others, including Mr. Puigdemont, fled to other European countries. Madrid has been seeking their extradition ever since. If convicted, they face up to 33 years in prison.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the Scottish National Party, has been a fervent supporter of Dr. Ponsati, who received a standing ovation at an SNP conference in June. Ms. Sturgeon has been looking for a way to rekindle interest in Scottish independence ever since Scots voted 55 per cent against it in a referendum in 2014. She has seized on Brexit and Britain’s narrow vote in 2016 to leave the EU, a decision that has been unpopular in Scotland. Ms. Sturgeon has said that since Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit in 2016, she’s considering calling a second referendum on independence in order to keep Scotland in the EU.

Dr. Ponsati’s case has become a convenient flashpoint for Ms. Sturgeon because the British government has backed Spain’s position on Catalonia. “We want to see the rule of law respected, the Spanish constitution upheld and Spanish unity maintained,” officials at the British embassy in Spain said recently.

Spain’s new Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, whose Socialist Party ousted Mr. Rajoy’s party last month, has been more receptive to greater independence for Catalonia but has ruled out a referendum on sovereignty. A recent poll in Catalonia found support for Catalan self-government within Spain at 62 per cent, while only 22 per cent backed outright independence.