Schrödinger's sentences

The outcome of one of Spain's highest-profile criminal trials is now known: Rodrigo Rato, former deputy prime minister and ex-head of the International Monetary Fund, is going to prison for four-and-a-half years after being found guilty of overseeing Bankia's "black credit card" scandal. Rato also received a fine of 110,000 euros for spending almost the same amount on his own limitless card between 2003 and 2012.

Miguel Blesa, who preceded Rato as the chairman of Bankia and who was on trial alongside him, was also found guilty in connection with the black cards and will go to prison for six years. Between them, then, these two men - once two of the most powerful figures in Spain's banking sector - will spend over a decade behind bars for leading illegally-funded, lavish lifestyles during Spain's recession.

Or maybe they won't. The problem is, fully-deserved as many Spaniards will see them, there is as yet no guarantee that these terms will actually be served. Applicable and yet not applicable, Rato's and Blesa's sentences have the paradoxical status of the cat in Schrödinger's thought-experiment, which for a while was simultaneously both dead and alive.

In Rato's case, this is is not solely because he can appeal - and, according to Spanish law, until a sentence is beyond appeal it is not enforceable. Rato is also waiting for the verdict in a separate case that has been running in parallel to his fraud trial, but which also concerns his period at the helm of Bankia. In this, he faces allegations in connection with the bank's disastrous IPO in 2012, in which it posted losses of over 19 billion euros. Many small retail investors lost their life savings in the lender's near-collapse.

Problems at Caja Madrid, one of the several banks that merged to form Bankia, were widely credited with bringing the latter to its knees. As Caja's former chairman, Blesa was actually imprisoned for a night in 2013 in relation to the lender's purchase of an allegedly liability-laden Miami bank in 2008. Blesa left his cell after paying 2.5 million euros of bail money - the amount he is said to have received when he left Caja Madrid in 2010. No further action was taken against him.

In the other high-profile Spanish fraud case of late, Infanta Cristina's husband Iñaki Urdangarin was sentenced to over six years in prison. He is, of course, appealing - but while he does so (and how long will that take, one wonders?) he is being allowed to remain in Switzerland, a non-EU country, where he has to report to authorities once a month. One cannot help but wonder if such treatment would also be meted out to someone who wasn't the king's brother-in-law, or whether Rato's and Blesa's sentences for serious fraud will ultimately prove merely symbolic. As it stands, though, they have been handed Schrödinger sentences.