'Because You're Black': Spain Ethnic Profiling Case Goes to Strasbourg

The European Court of Human Rights has notified the Spanish government that it will consider the case of a young man who was subjected to a police stop-and-search for no other reason than that he is black.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg has accepted a case against Spain for police identification based on ethnic profiling, i. e., based on a person’s skin colour. The Spanish government has until April to submit its position together with any comment or proposal on the case.

'Because you're black'

Zeshan Muhammad, a resident of Barcelona since he was a child and holder of a long-term residence permit, was stopped in Barcelona by an officer of the National Police on 29 May 2013. The officer admitted that he would not have stopped a white person in similar circumstances, and he told Muhammad that he did so in this case "because you’re black, period!"

Muhammad, with the support of SOS Racisme Catalunya and Open Society Justice Initiative, is pressing forward with this strategic litigation in order to see not only that this violation of his rights is recognised and compensated for, but also to put an end to this discriminatory police practice endured by an enormous sector of the population: all those who are not white.

The claim filed before the ECtHR argues that stopping a person on the basis of prejudices associated with his or her skin colour, known as “ethnic profiling”, infringes the right to non-discrimination (as stated in Article 14 and Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights) as well as the right to to private life (as stated in Article 8 of the same Convention).

In November 2016, the Spanish Constitutional Court rejected Muhammad’s case, considering it "not relevant", despite the fact that the appeal claimed that stop-and-searches based on ethnic profiling violate both the Constitution and international norms that are binding on Spain, and that this discriminatory police practice affects thousands of people in our country.

Spain out of step with other EU states

The Constitutional Court has itself lent legitimacy to these systematic violations of human rights. In 2001, the court confronted a similar claim, filed by Rosalind Williams, and ruled that it was legal and legitimate to stop-and-search non-white persons on the grounds that "normally Spanish citizens are white". In response to this ruling, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, after being approached by Williams, ruled that this practice is discriminatory and illegal, and urged the Spanish state to scrap it. However, the Constitutional Court did not take advantage of the historic opportunity presented by young Zeshan Muhammad’s case to make a different ruling in agreement with the UN, and to establish that ethnic profiling is illegal and discriminatory.

The Constitutional Court's decision on Muhammad’s case goes against court rulings in other European countries: one day after it, the French Court of Cassation ruled that police controls based on ethnic profiling are illegal. And in Sweden, the government was found guilty for ethnic profiling because it created and kept a register of Roma people.