If Spain’s emeritus king Juan Carlos I was a former head of state of a foreign country, and was accused in Spanish courts of harassment, illegal monitoring and libel – as he has been by his former lover, Corinna Larsen, in the United Kingdom – he would not be covered by sovereign immunity.
This is the central question of the lawsuit Larsen has filed against the former monarch, which is being heard by a court in London. The Monaco-based businesswoman, who used to be romantically involved with Juan Carlos, has asked for an injunction restraining the emeritus king from contacting her, following her, defaming her or coming within a distance of 150 meters of her.
At the end of December 2020, Larsen detailed the harassment that she claims to have suffered as part of her lawsuit, attributing the events to Juan Carlos I directly or to figures acting in his name. These included the former director of Spain’s CNI secret service, Félix Sanz Roldán. Larsen argued that the behavior was designed to persuade her to return a €65 million gift that Juan Carlos had transferred to her “irrevocably” in 2012, or to restart their relationship.
In the extensive lawsuit, the businesswoman related the alleged threats, electronic surveillance and monitoring that she claims she and her team of consultants were subjected to, as well as the series of allegations that was aimed at her. The consequences of all of this, according to the legal filings, were anxiety and distress that have required medical treatment, led to the deterioration of her relationships with her children and other relatives, and the loss of many of her wealthy clients.
But whether or not this case prospers depends on if Juan Carlos – as his lawyer argues – still enjoys immunity against prosecution as a “sovereign.”
In Spain, the norm that regulates the status of foreign leaders is an organic law on the immunity and privileges of states and international organizations in the country that was approved in 2015 under the administration of former prime minister Mariano Rajoy. According to this law, heads of foreign states are “inviolable when they enter Spanish territory, during the entire period of their mandate, regardless of whether they are on an official or private visit” and “will not be subject to any form of detention.”
Larsen, a Monaco-based businesswoman who continues to use her German ex-husband’s aristocratic title, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, made headlines in 2018 when recordings emerged in which she claimed she had been used as a front to conceal some of Juan Carlos’ wealth.
Juan Carlos I was investigated by the Spanish Supreme Court public prosecutor in connection with alleged kickback payments stemming from the construction of an AVE high-speed rail link from Medina to Mecca, and for other alleged offenses including bribery, perverting the course of justice, influence peddling and tax evasion. But in October prosecutors announced they were planning to shelve these probes.
But once they are no longer head of state, as is the case of Juan Carlos I, who abdicated the throne in 2014, “they will continue enjoying criminal immunity only in relation to the acts carried out during their mandate, in the exercise of official duties.” The law explicitly excludes genocide, forced disappearance, war and crimes against humanity from this immunity. Also excluded is immunity against civil suits like the one filed by Larsen against the former monarch over harassment claims. The law states that a former head of state “will continue to enjoy civil, work, administrative, commercial and fiscal immunity only in relation to the acts carried out during his mandate in the exercise of official duties,” with a series of exceptions made for different kinds of business and trade conflicts.
To drive home the point further, the 2015 law also states that “once their mandate is over,” former heads of state “will not be able to use their immunity in Spanish judicial bodies when it involves actions related to acts that were not carried out in the exercise of their official duties during their mandate.” In other words, under no circumstances will their private actions be protected by immunity.
This same argument was made at a preliminary hearing on Monday by the barrister representing Larsen, James Lewis QC, who said that no one can reasonably argue that the acts of harassment and persecution that Juan Carlos is accused of were carried out under the cover of his public functions – i.e., with the protection of immunity.
Former heads of foreign states will continue enjoying criminal immunity only in relation to the acts carried out during their mandate, in the exercise of official duties
Spanish law on immunity of foreign leaders in Spain
Under Spanish law, the only judicial privilege Juan Carlos enjoys is aforamiento– the Spanish term for the protection offered to politicians, judges and others from prosecution in the country’s lower courts. In other words, any case against the emeritus king, whether civil or criminal, has to be heard by the Supreme Court. This rule, which also applies to Queen Letizia, Princess Leonor and the mother of King Felipe VI, Queen Sofía, was approved in July 2014, immediately after the abdication of Juan Carlos, to strengthen the royal family’s protection against prosecution in the lower court.
But the future of the lawsuit against Juan Carlos hinges on whether the court decides if the former monarch still enjoys immunity against prosecution. To reach a decision, British Judge Matthew Nicklin, who is overseeing the case, has called on “the Spanish state” to clarify whether the emeritus king is still a part of the royal family.
A lot is riding on this point. Sir Daniel Bethlehem, the barrister from the international law firm Clifford Chance who is representing Juan Carlos, has based his defense on the argument that the former monarch cannot be brought before the courts as he is still protected as he remains “sovereign” and “member of his household” under the Spanish Constitution, and as such enjoys immunity.
This means it is now up to a British court to review the legal armory the Spanish government built around Juan Carlos, when he abdicated the throne in June 2014. In other words, the court must decide what is the legal status the father of King Felipe VI has been enjoying for the past seven years.
When Juan Carlos abdicated, the Rajoy administration approved a law that – in addition to granting the emeritus king aforamiento privileges – made two very clear decisions: it gave Juan Carlos the lifetime use of the “honorary title of king” and made it clear that both he and queen Sofía would remain members of the royal family.
These are the grounds upon which Bethlehem based Juan Carlos’s defense at the preliminary hearing on Monday. But Larsen’s barrister, James Lewis, was swift to dismiss this argument, claiming “no one considers that Juan Carlos I maintains the rank of head of state” and that “it is an honorary title, such as those retained by former presidents of the United States.” With respect to whether Juan Carlos is part of the royal family, Lewis pointed out that the former monarch does not depend economically on Felipe VI, nor lives under the same roof, and as such cannot claim immunity. Indeed Juan Carlos has been living in Abu Dhabi since August 2020, after he left Spain in the wake of an investigation into alleged financial irregularities.
Both sides believe that the judge will reach a decision on whether or not Juan Carlos still enjoys immunity within two months. After all, Christmas is just around the corner, they say.
Through the dim forest, a slow procession of hundreds of people largely dressed in white, some in a trance, others singing fervently, heads towards the Osun River. As they have every August for 700 years, Yoruba people gather here at the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove, a Unesco world heritage site in south-west Nigeria, for an ancient festival celebrating their traditional spirituality.
Yoruba religious practitioners, adorned with cowrie shells, some with crosses or Islamic beads, pray for protection and offer sacrifices. In a region where Christianity and Islam are dominant, Yoruba traditions have often been cast as demonic – a legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous faiths – but are practised by a devout minority and hold a wide significance for people of varying faiths.
Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of Yoruba spirituality among the younger generation, with more young people becoming practitioners and Ifá priests.
The two-week Osun festival attracts visitors from across the Yoruba-dominated south-west, along with diasporas from South America and the Caribbean, as well as tourists. Osun, the goddess of the river, is said to have appeared to an ancient warrior, instructing him to bring Yoruba people out of famine, into safety in Osogbo city. In return, they would offer a yearly festival.
Osunnike Ogundele, 53, wears a shimmering green and gold lace dress, her hair braided with cowrie shells. “I’ve been here all my life,” she says, explaining her mother’s influence, and her own guidance for her children.
“My fondest memories of the grove are our mothers before us who passed on the knowledge we have now. There was so much to learn from just observing them and we are trying our best to pass this on to our daughters too,” she says. “Osun answers all prayers, no one cries to her without leaving with a smile.”
Osunniti Sikiru, 32, a Muslim and Osun priestess, is one of a number of custodians of the grove. She describes how, for Yoruba people, cultural heritage should be understood as predating the advent of Abrahamic religion in the region.
“Most of our forefathers weren’t Christians or Muslims,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that as a Muslim one can’t combine it with Osun worship. Water is very symbolic in Islam and Osun worship, both emphasise purity. I am still a practising Muslim, I still pray five times a day, my son is named Ibrahim, but Osun worship precedes most religions in Yoruba land.”
Princess Adeola Iya Osun, 47, another priestess, chimes in. “One of my daughters is a pastor and my son actively goes to the church, but what I try to preach is a symbiotic relationship between faiths.”
There have been concerns that the Osun River, seen as having healing powers, has been contaminated, sparking fears for the health of the worshippers who wash and drink here. Local media investigations allegedly found dangerous levels of lead, lithium, aluminium and iron, caused by the activities of artisanal miners and large companies.
Last year, pictures of the polluted river caused uproar and demands for government action. A warning by the state authorities not to drink from the river came on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, sparking further anger. Some chose to drink anyway, knowing the river was contaminated, believing they would be protected from ill-health.
Pollution is a serious worry for those attempting to maintain the integrity of the grove and its surroundings.
A committee of custodians leads these efforts, clearing the litter, while preserving the architecture and stone carvings.
On the final day of the festival, visitors crowd the banks of the river to meet priests and priestesses for consultation and prayers. Baskets are laid out full of kola nuts, fruits and vegetables.
In a trance, a priestess bellows praises to the goddess, then shares messages and warnings. As devotees arrive for prayers, testimonies are shared by people who have attended for several years.
Iya Osun’s parents had challenges having children, she says. “My mother came to pray to Osun for a child. I’m a result of that answered prayer.”
As the festival ends, the crowds leave the grove and the dense forest, their prayers made, hoping to return next year with testimonies of their own.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea do not apply to the Donbas republics, Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Russian Foreign Ministry Pyotr Ilyichev said in an interview with Sputnik.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
“The recruitment of labor from North Korea is subject to international restrictions established by UN Security Council resolutions. However, it must be taken into account that they apply to the member states of the world organization, which the people’s republics of Donbas are not,” Ilyichev said.
He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
The poliovirus is circulating again in the West. A virus that was on the way to global eradication has been detected in recent months in the wastewater of New York and London. This is not unusual, since it can appear in the fecal remains of vaccinated people with the attenuated pathogen. What’s different now is that the poliovirus – which causes the infectious disease polio – has been recorded in an adult in the United States, something that has not happened for a decade, and that samples from the United Kingdom suggest there is local transmission of the disease.
How did the virus get there? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the two types of vaccines that are used against polio. In countries where transmission is eradicated, an intramuscular vaccine is used. This contains the inactive virus, which is enough to prevent it from spreading in an environment where the pathogen is no longer circulating in the wild and most of the population is vaccinated. The second type of vaccine is made up of oral drops with a live attenuated virus, which is used in countries where polio continues to circulate. It produces antibodies in the blood, as well as the oral and intestinal mucosa. “With this vaccine, the immunized person would not develop the disease nor would they be able to infect others if they become infected with the wild virus,” explain researchers José Jiménez and Ana María Ortega-Prieto, from King’s College London, in an article in The Conversation.
The only two countries where polio remains endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 12 cases and one so far this year, respectively. Normally, when polio is detected in fecal remains in the wastewater, it comes from the excretion of people from these countries, which is not a major problem. What has happened now is that the virus is not just being detected in wastewater, it’s infecting people.
It’s still not fully confirmed that there is local circulation in London, but the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned: “The poliovirus levels and the genetic diversity among the isolates suggests some level of virus transmission both in the areas where positive samples were found and in adjacent ones.”
Local circulation has been confirmed in New York, where one adult has been paralyzed due to the virus. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this case, is just “the tip of the iceberg.” “There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus,” Dr. José Romero, from the CDC, told news network CNN. “The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”
As was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a case is detected and its origin is unknown, it is normally a sign of uncontrolled transmission. “For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett in a statement. This is partly due to the fact that most people who contract the poliovirus are asymptomatic. Only in about 1% of cases does the virus cause problems: if it enters the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and muscle atrophy.
What are the consequences of these outbreaks? In both London and New York, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of their respective countries, meaning there is an elevated risk for children, who mainly affected by this disease. In London, authorities have already launched a vaccination campaign to offer booster doses to one million children between the ages of one and nine.
The road to polio eradication
The spread of polio is limited, at least in countries with high vaccination coverage. But these recent cases show that the virus still presents a risk and completely eradicating it is a complicated task, even if it seemed within reach.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 with the aim of eradicating polio just as smallpox has been eradicated. In general terms, the program has been a success: the number of polio cases worldwide have dropped 99% since its creation.
Only Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalism makes vaccination campaigns difficult, report a few cases each year. And Nigeria, the other country where there is wild poliovirus (i.e. not the virus is transmitted by the attenuated vaccines), has not reported a single case since 2016.
The secret to this achievement is mass vaccination: first with the oral vaccine and then, when the country is already free of the disease, with the vaccine given by injection. Keeping vaccination levels high is key to curbing the virus.
According to UNICEF data, global vaccination levels dropped between 2019 and 2021 by 5%. In other words, 25 million children stopped receiving their doses. Vaccination rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years: 81% for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, which are considered a good indicator for other conditions. This means it is likely that polio coverage is at similarly low levels.