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Is Spain taking an authoritarian turn?

by Cristina Belda Font

The case of the puppeteers who spent five days in preventative detention for staging a satire in which a sign appeared saying “Long Live Alka-ETA” – in reference to the Basque terrorist group and Al-Qaeda – has raised serious concerns over the fragility of the constitutional guarantees in Spain. Although the media backlash has died down, the threat to freedom of expression lives on.

The two actors –members of the Títeres desde Abajo (Puppets From Below) company, accused of incitement to hatred and glorification of terrorism, were released on charges days after their arrest gave rise to mass protests under the slogan “Stop Repression”.

Now, not only civil society but also pro human rights groups and experts are warning that this is not an isolated case and that judicial power is being used for partisan and arbitrary ends.

“We are returning to the figure of the political dissident,” Joaquim Bosch, spokesperson for the association Jueces para la Democracia (Judges for Democracy), explains to Equal Times.

In the same vein, 164 intellectuals, including the US linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky, essayist Antonio Negri and filmmaker and historian Tariq Ali, have recently signed a manifesto in defence of civil liberties in Spain and Europe.

According to its initiators, the proposal has “arisen out of the concern for the growing restriction of rights that are the foundation of all democratic life: civil rights”.

Amnesty International (AI), for its part, has called for the charges against the puppeteers to be dropped and that the Spanish authorities repeal or amend the articles of the Penal Code that place disproportionate restrictions on human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.

Over 43,000 signatures have been collected to date.

AI spokesperson Ana Gómez told Equal Times: “The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and information are being restricted by the Penal Code reform, which includes amendments on terrorism, and the Public Safety Law, dubbed the ’Gag Law’.”

Both pieces of legislation have sounded the alarm bells of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the NGO Human Rights Watch, which wasted no time in calling for their immediate repeal.

 

Who can be accused of glorifying terrorism?

The reform of the Penal Code, which took effect in July 2015, and was approved by the People’s Party, has stirred opposition among many jurists, including well-known public prosecutors, lawyers and judges.

The list of what constitutes terrorist “ends” is now much longer, ranging from subverting constitutional rule to suppressing or destabilising the workings of public institutions or the economic or social structures of the state. But even more worrying for Bosch is the fact that offences linked to the glorification of terrorism are presented in highly ambiguous terms, creating very broad scope for action.

“Humourists, singers or anyone posting a relatively successful joke on Twitter is being taken to the National Court (the court of first instance trying terrorism offences). It is totally out of proportion,” warns Bosch.

Furthermore, adds the judge, “every time something like this happens, police systems are set in motion and huge raids are carried out; even the Minister of the Interior finds himself involved, as if a highly dangerous anti-terrorist commando had been deactivated, (and all) over a joke made in poor taste or, in this case, a play for adults.”

For Bosch, such incidents “do not constitute a real threat to society”.

Glorification of terrorism offences carry prison sentences of between one and three years. Between 2014 and 2015, 95 people were arrested for this crime in Spain, making it the period with the highest number of indictments since the year 2000. This sharp rise, according to the organisation No somos delito (We are Not a Crime), is owed to the persecution of certain sectors of society.

“We have seen how this intimidation of opinions expressed through social networks is being expanded and honed in a partisan manner,” members of the organisation tell Equal Times.

One of the cases stirring the most controversy and to which this organisation refers, is that of the humourist Facu Díaz, whom charges were brought against for a sketch in which a message was staged from the terrorist group ETA parodying the People’s Party. The case was shelved. But it is not the only one: César Strawberry, leader of the rap group Def Con Dos, or Guillermo Zapata, councillor at Madrid City Council, for example, were called to testify over certain tweets.

Such incidents are a source of conflicting opinions among the public in Spain. For some, it is black humour within the limits of freedom of expression. For others, it is a direct humiliation of the victims of terrorism and should be punished as such. The case of the puppeteers, as Bosch sees it, “was a work of fiction, so it does not constitute a real insult”.

 

The Public Safety Law and the strategy of fear

The other text threatening not only freedom of expression but also freedom of assembly and association is the Public Safety Law.

The opposition parties promised to repeal it if they came to power. However, whilst the traditional left is negotiating pacts with the emerging parties (Podemos and Ciudadanos), there is still no sign of any concrete decisions on this matter.

The Socialist Party, in charge of forming a government, is confronted with more than one obstacle to doing away with it, as the complexity of the instrument makes any major change impossible.

In its “Programme for a progressive and reformist government”, they have opted to “reform” rather than repeal it, a move which has received harsh criticism from various collectives and organisations, including Amnesty International.

According to AI, the law grants the police broad discretionary powers, without procedural safeguards, enabling them to fine people who show them a “lack of respect”.

It also restricts the filming of police officers, with fines of up to €30,000 for anyone disseminating the images filmed.

The Public Safety Law has introduced offences that did not exist, such as protesting in banking institutions.

Moreover, the administrative authorities, not the courts, are in charge of imposing the fines for numerous public order offences, which, according to the AI spokesperson, can only undermine legal rights and guarantees.

Lawyer Óscar Franco Bermúdez points out in an interview with Equal Times that, “citizens are left defenceless, it being the same Administration that initiates, processes and decides on the case.”

He adds an observation that is by no means insignificant: “the hefty administrative sanctions of up to €600,000 could go as far as to ruin a family.”

“All this is part of a collection of measures punishing political dissent. The government is incapable of convincing people with its policies, so it is using the strategy of fear,” concludes Bosch.

 

This article has been translated from Spanish.

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