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Between Europe's Borders

Why Political Prisoners from Spain Seek Asylum in Belgium

For decades, Belgium has quietly offered an escape for activists considered enemies of the Spanish state. Here's how.

by Arkasha Keysers
08 August 2019, 10:59am

Rapper Valtònyc. All photos: Antoine Grenez 

Their political ideologies don't align, but Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, Mallorcan rapper Valtònyc, and Basque separatists Luis Moreno and Raquel García have a few things in common. They all found themselves enemies of the Spanish state, they all fled to Belgium for political protection, and used the exact same lawyers to keep from being extradited. To better understand why political activists flee Spain to find a safe haven in Belgium, I spoke to their lawyers – father-and-son duo, Paul and Simon Bekaert.

The Bekaerts are an authority on human rights and extradition. In the 1990s, Paul Bekaert defended several people who were in some way connected with the armed separatist Basque National Liberation Movement (ETA), including Moreno and García, who fled to Belgium from Spain when they were accused of secretly housing ETA members. The couple have lived in Belgium for the past 26 years now, as they waited out the statute of limitations on their case. On two separate occasions, Paul blocked a direct extradition request from Spain.

So it's not surprising that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont suddenly showed up at the Bekaerts' office less than two days after he fled Barcelona following the Catalonian independence election that the Spanish government said was illegal. "I was out for a meeting when I suddenly got a text message saying 'Carles Puigdemont is in the office'," Paul tells me. "He left Barcelona on Monday afternoon and was at my desk at 5PM the next day."

Rapper Valtònyc – real name Josep Miquel Arenas Beltrán – was also taken under the Bekaerts' wing after he fled to Belgium in May of 2018. He did so to escape a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for, according to the Spanish court, offending the royal family, endorsing domestic terrorism and sending death threats through his lyrics. A Belgian court in Ghent disagreed, and argued against the Spanish court's ruling. The rapper will not be extradited at this time, though an appeal is pending.


Watch: VICE Meets Valtònyc – The Rapper in Exile


“We think the Belgian court will ultimately agree to Valtònyc’s extradition, because they’re afraid that Spain will start making extraditions of criminals to Belgium more difficult, for crimes relating to drugs and human trafficking, for instance," Paul says. He notes that Belgian officials "of course have to work quite intensively with their colleagues in Spain. If a Belgian judge says 'we won’t extradite', Belgian prosecution officials can tell their Spanish counterparts: ‘we’ve tried, but the judge decided otherwise.’”

On YouTube, Valtònyc's tracks feature a disclaimer that requires listeners to confirm that they are aged over-18. "Hip-hop is very direct – it's music that commands your attention," he tells me. "Most of the stuff I said that I was convicted for was hyperbole. Like threatening a politician with throwing an atom bomb at his head. It's stupid to think I’d really do that. Why? Because I'm 24 years old, work on a fruit stand, and Mallorca doesn’t have any plutonium."

That was the case Simon Bekaert made in front of a Belgian judge. "In court, I read out lyrics from singers who said much worse stuff, and who have played the [Belgian] festivals Rock Werchter, Graspop and [Dutch festival] Pinkpop,” Simon explains. “As an example, The Offspring have a song where near the end they sing 'Kill the president' five times. Bob Marley shot the sheriff, and when you read the stuff that Eminem raps about…”

Belgium's History as a Safe Haven

“Since the country was founded, Belgium has been a safe haven for people who fall outside the norm,” Paul says. “The tradition of giving asylum to political dissidents started in the 19th century. Karl Marx and Victor Hugo all lived in exile in Brussels.” Simon Bekaert adds: “As long as those living in exile didn’t actively continue preaching their cause, they were allowed to stay.”

"We’ve been very sensitive to freedom of speech in Belgium ever since our nation was born," Paul adds. “Emperor Napoleon III orchestrated a coup in France in the mid-19th century and pressured Belgium to extradite French dissidents who were fighting him from Brussels, but Belgium has always said no. Not extraditing is a tradition here.”

Isn’t it strange for one EU member country to refuse extradition to another member? "It actually says a lot about Spain," Simon tells me. "After 9/11, the European Arrest Warrant took effect, a law that allows for faster extradition of terrorists to another European country. But Spain now abuses this law by locking up and extraditing its own political adversaries, like Puigdemont and Valtònyc. The Belgian court looked at Valtònyc's case and ruled that it was not terrorism. Puigdemont was accused of rebellion, and after he was arrested in Germany because of the European Arrest Warrant, the German court didn’t agree with that accusation either."

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Father-and-son lawyer duo Simon and Paul Bekaerts

You can look back way into history for examples of Ghent – where Valtònyc’s case was heard – holding firm against Spanish legal attacks. Simon brings up two. “Emperor Charles V, the king of Spain at the time, once attacked Ghent because its inhabitants offended him and didn’t pay their taxes. More recently, socialist leader Edward Anseele said during a workers strike that King Leopold II was guilty of genocide in Congo, which was true, of course. Next thing you know, Anseele is being prosecuted for offending the king. He was sentenced, but ended up being the mayor of Ghent and after that, Minister of State. Keeping all that in mind, the court in Ghent again said: 'no, we don’t extradite for offending a royal'”.

Help Arrives from Unexpected Places

After arriving in Belgium, Puidgemont was offered support by members of the conservative and nationalist party the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). To many it seemed like an unlikely political alliance as Puigdemont is a lot more progressive than N-VA. But they both want more autonomy for their regions – Puigdemont for Catalonia, N-VA for Flanders. “N-VA created a positive atmosphere for Puigdemont,” says Paul. “Theo Francken, who was Minister of Asylum and Migration at the time of the referendum, had already said that Puigdemont could apply for political asylum here. Interior Minister Jan Jambon also clearly expressed his sympathy.”

Valtònyc was approached by N-VA too. "I think because my cause can be linked to the Catalan cause and independence. But personally I feel much more connected to progressive parties and I must say that there has been a lack of solidarity from the leftist parties in Belgium. Though I follow [workers party] PVDA, they haven’t taken an interest in my case."

How Brussels Functions as a Megaphone

"Puigdemont is often seen in the Wetstraat," says Simon, referring to a street in eastern Brussels where many Belgian governmental and EU buildings are located. Here, in the heart of the European Union, the Catalan president still exerts his political power. That might have been another reason for him to come to Brussels. “In Brussels, you can make connections. The city is like a megaphone," Paul agrees. “Another member of the Catalan parliament [Marta Rovira] didn’t flee to Brussels, but to Switzerland,” says Simon. "Switzerland does not participate in the European Arrest Warrant, so that seems like a good place to go to avoid extradition. But politically it's not, because you can’t spread your message there. You’re literally surrounded by mountains. And unless you're a banker, there's nothing to do. You can buy the Financial Times, and that's about it.”

Will Belgium start attracting political refugees from all over the world? "Absolutely not," Paul says. "I’ve worked for a lot of ETA militants at the time, and they’ve pretty much all been extradited. The European Arrest Warrant doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. Luis Moreno and Raquel García are an exception, because they didn’t use any force. Same goes for Puigdemont and Valtònyc. Violence, or lack thereof, becomes the deciding factor in the decision not to extradite."

When Belgium Becomes Your Forever

Basques Luis Moreno and Raquel García came to Belgium in 1992 and weren’t able to leave for the next 25 years. What was that like? “It’s fine,” says Luis via Skype. “There are better countries out there, but many more worse ones. Our families could come visit us during the last 26 years. On the other hand, we can’t easily return. We’re both in our mid-fifties now and will continue to work in Belgium until we retire, because in Basque Country we’d have to find a job and housing all over again. We’re settled here in Belgium. And last year our son decided, right around the time we were allowed to return, that he’d be moving in Belgium with his wife and our grandson.”

What was it like to return to visit Basque Country last year? "Emotional", says García. "On the one hand, you're happy it's possible. On the other, you’re afraid they’ll arrest you, even though you have your papers.”

"There was one upside to staying in Belgium for all those years," says Moreno. "We really got to know the country. We’ve seen everything here. In the winter, we’d go eat game in the Ardennes. In the summer, we went to the sea."

Unlike the Basque couple, Valtònyc can’t go back to Mallorca just yet – he’d be arrested immediately. “But even if I were allowed to, I never want to go back,” he says. “I don’t trust a country that wants to imprison a rapper. I also don’t trust a state that throws people in prison for organising a referendum.”

Read more stories from VICE.com's series about how the national borders dividing and surrounding Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.