MADRID - Spain is grappling with the dilemma of whether it should allow the courts to consider a request to extradite the leading Venezuelan opposition activist to Caracas.
The Venezuelan government filed a request for Spain to return Leopoldo López to complete the remaining eight years of a 14-year prison sentence for instigating violence in antigovernment protests and other crimes.
The former Caracas mayor, who has been one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition to the rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, fled the country last year and has been living in Spain.
Spain has so far refused to give any indication as to how it will respond to the request.
“We will process it as it is always done but obviously I am not going to discuss what is the response that the government of Spain as this [request] just arrived,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Gonzalez Laya last week.
López has received widespread international support including from former U.S. President Barack Obama for taking a stand against Maduro.
Owing to the political sensitivity of the case, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will consider the request first.
Opposition conservative parties in Spain will also put pressure on Spain's leftist coalition government not to make concessions to Venezuela which is seen as a pariah state by the Right in Madrid.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative People's Party, has urged the prime minister not to recognize the legitimacy of Venezuela's High Court which issued the extradition order.
“Sánchez must immediately say that he does not recognize a court of a dictatorship and that he is not going to process the extradition of an exile like Leopoldo López,” Casado tweeted.
Sánchez is already facing widespread criticism in Spain because he is considering pardoning nine separatist Catalan political activists in order to try to break the deadlock between Madrid and Barcelona.
A poll published last week for El Español, an online Spanish newspaper, found 79.6% of Spaniards oppose pardoning separatists who were jailed for between 13 and nine years in prison for their roles in staging an illegal independence referendum in 2017.
The opposition is likely to seize on any sudden concession by the prime minister to the Venezuelan government.
Experts have suggested the leftist Spanish government has been keen to keep negotiating channels open with Caracas to try to force reform in Venezuela as well as backing European Union sanctions against the Latin American state.
If the Socialist prime minister believes the case should be considered by judges, it will be passed to the National Court, which decides extradition cases.
However, in the past, the Spanish judiciary has refused to extradite former Venezuelan officials accused of corruption and dissidents wanted by Caracas after judges ruling that they would face political prosecutions if they were returned to their own countries.
López, who is currently on a tour of Latin America to meet foreign leaders, has expressed his confidence in the Spanish justice system.
“Faced with the persecution of the Maduro dictatorship, now reflected in an illegal petition for extradition, I will put myself at the disposition of the justice system, in a country with democratic institutions, separation of powers and justice and in which I have confidence,” he tweeted.
Analysts suggest that the extradition request is an attempt by Maduro to split the opposition in Venezuela ahead of regional elections in November.
“With elections later this year, Maduro has allowed two members of the opposition into a body called the National Forum,” Ana Ayuso, a Latin American specialist at the CIDOB think-tank in Barcelona, told VOA.
“At the same time, he wants to take a hard line against López and carry on splitting the opposition.”
However, other experts believe Maduro wants to use the López extradition request to level criticism at the international community, principally the United States and the European Union.
Carlos Malamud, a senior investigator who specializes in Latin America at the Real Elcano Institute, a research organization in Madrid, believes if the request is refused, Caracas will try to use it to claim that the international community does not respect human rights.
“This [extradition request] forms part of the line from Caracas that the international community does not abide by human rights,” he told VOA in an interview.
“I do not see much chance of this prospering. For Spain to grant this extradition request to Caracas would break ranks with Spain's European allies and with the United States,” Malamud said.