Exercise Your Rights to Defend Them - A Reminder From Spain

A statement from Rights International Spain, released in the face of Spain’s approval of the new "gag law," reminds us that we must continue to exercise our rights to defend them.

The three laws, approved on March 26, constitute a "threefold gag," and have been adopted in a very specific context that Rights International Spain has been called "The Vicious Circle of Injustice." Faced with a civil society that actively protests against its austerity policies, the Spanish government, instead of listening to citizens’ demands, shields itself by enforcing reforms that restrict rights and liberties indispensable to a democratic society, limit access to justice and attack basic principles of the rule of law. We believe that these are not isolated actions; all of them are part of one orchestrated plan to leave us #WithoutJustice. We are clearly in the midst of a backslide.

The gag laws go against our civil rights and liberties, something that has been stated by several institutions, both international and European, that safeguard human rights. The Spanish government and the People’s Party are both aware of this because at RIS, we have made it known to them through several initiatives (some of these done in conjunction with international organizations or other European countries) taken before the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Interior, Congress and Senate, throughout the many stages of legislative procedure. Evidence of the fact that our lawmakers know the human rights implications involved in these rules is that they have introduced some—few, but some—improvements in the legislative texts, precisely in response to our demands and those of the international institutions.

Criminalizing peaceful protest

Indeed, the regulation texts that we are concerned with still have serious deficiencies that curb our rights and liberties in a disproportionate and unjustified manner. The following are some of our concerns.

Regarding the counter-terrorism reform, we must stress that it as been processed urgently and behind the backs of civil society; in this manner, the process of broad consultation with independent experts was not adhered to, in terms of UN recommendations. We are also concerned that this reform will introduce unclear terminology that, because of its vagueness and lack of precision, violates the principle of legality and may give way to arbitrary enforcement of criminal law and disproportionate restriction of the freedom of expression.

Regarding the reform of the penal code, its objective seems to be to criminalize different types of peaceful protest that are perfectly legitimate in democratic society. For example, simple passive resistance is listed as a crime against authority. We are also concerned that the new crime of dissemination of messages can be applied to those who simply call for a demonstration or other type of protest, and that other types of legitimate protest, such as the peaceful, non-violent occupation of public offices and banks, are being criminalized.

Photographing the police

Finally, the Public Security Act has three very clear and worrisome objectives: it seeks to turn the requirement of providing prior notice of demonstrations and protests into a de facto authorization process by the government, in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution; secondly, it seeks to keep the public space from being a place for political participation; finally, it sanctions forms of social protest that are absolutely peaceful and legitimate in a democratic society. As an example, even the mere occupation of public thoroughfares or a minor detour from the planned route of a march is penalized.

Disproportionate restrictions are imposed on the freedom of expression and the right to information through the penalization of the use of photographs of police officers (these are the very ones used as evidence in legal proceedings against the police in cases of abuse) or the mere "lack of respect" toward a police officer. It is also disturbing that the legislative process of this law was not used as an occasion to establish legal guarantees against the discriminating practice of police profiling based on the ethnic traits of individuals, as was urged by numerous European and international institutions.

Yesterday, Congress adopted these three gag laws, but, in the words of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, "what is illegal cannot be rendered legal." So, we are not going to allow it; we will continue to exercise our rights and to work so that these laws are overturned. In the meantime, until we have achieved this, the Spanish state must be aware that by adopting these laws, it is placing itself in a situation of bona fide risk and of likely condemnation by international organizations, starting with the European Court of Human Rights. Because our rights and liberties are above their gags.