Citizens across Europe are exercising their rights to express their discontent, challenge government policies and channel their claims through mobilization and peaceful protest. The Spanish government’s response to an active and vocal civil society against austerity policies has been to implement a reform agenda that further restricts freedoms and rights, instead of responding to people’s needs and demands. This reality greatly reduces the legal guarantees citizens enjoy before the courts. These are not isolated actions; they are all part of a plan that intends to leave us #WithoutJustice.
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The reforms of the Spanish government include the following:
The reform of the Public Safety law has been called the “anti-protest law” or “muzzle law” because it seeks to curb citizens’ rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. The legislative proposal states, “the occupation of any common, public or private space” will be considered an administrative infraction subject to a fine of up to €1,000. A park is a common space. A square is a common space. A street is a common space. What is the government thinking? This is a violation of the Spanish Constitution, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Criminal Code reform includes several modifications that negatively impact citizens’ rights. The section on “crimes against public order” is designed to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, both of which are afforded in the Constitution and are inherent freedoms in any truly free and just democracy. But if you think you can easily remedy this injustice through the courts, you should think again.
The government is setting up obstacles for common citizens to access the justice system. A 2012 law requires citizens to pay fees if they wish to bring any non-criminal matter to court, or appeal a ruling. Want to bring a claim against a bank for deceiving you into buying toxic financial products? Do you want to appeal the fine you received for protesting? Well, you better pay the fees, or else decide to do nothing. In Spain, those are now your options.
The legal aid reform (legal aid being the provision of a public defense counsel due to lack of financial resources) will result in fewer people benefitting from free counsel. Someone who wants to appeal a fine for having participated in a demonstration, or perhaps is filing a claim for the payment of an unpaid bill, but earns more than €1,065 per month and has no family, has no right to public defense counsel, so this person will have to a pay for a lawyer, a court representative and court fees out-of-pocket.
The Criminal Procedure Act reform means NGOs, social movements, and other associations that have denounced human rights violations and political corruption will not be able to do so in the future. Prosecutors will be in control of any legal action, without sufficient checks and balances. The Prosecutor General’s Office answers directly to the government. Prosecutors often seek prison sentences for protesters, are inactive against corruption, and seek dismissal for cases of police abuse or mistreatment.
As if these reforms weren’t bad enough, the government has sought to restrict citizens’ ability to seek justice by shrinking the judiciary. The government has abolished 1,200 substitute judges’ positions, saying they were unnecessary. This move highlights the government’s distrust of the judiciary, and it has moved to quash complaints and criticisms from said judges by effectively placing a muzzle on them, restricting their freedom of expression and ability to participate in public life.
Human rights, justice and the rule of law are at the core of the European Union. Therefore, any attempt to attack these values and dismantle the rule of law constitutes an attack on the EU system. This is outrageous. We do not want to find ourselves #WithoutJustice. It is up to each and every one of us to stop it!