Spain: how a democratic country can silence its citizens

Spain, one of the European countries at the
sharp end of imposed austerity measures, has also been in the vanguard of imposing
restrictions on protest against them. Archive: originally published May 2014

And you are? Police impeding a protest last month against an eviction in Madrid. Adolfo Lujan / DISO Press. Some rights reserved.

Thirty-five year old
Jorge is a nurse in a health centre in Madrid. During a demonstration against
health cuts in March of last year he was arrested and accused of attempting to
assault a politician. Television footage later showed he had been several
metres away and protesting peacefully.

Four months earlier he had
been convicted of taking part in an “unauthorised assembly” when protesting at an
eviction. He was fined €301 for causing serious public disorder in a public
place or causing damage. I’ve seen a video of the action and it shows a group
of people urging bailiffs not to throw someone out of their home—it doesn’t
even seem that voices were raised.  

Six months before that
he had received a letter saying he would be fined for “disobeying the orders of
the police” when told to disperse during another demonstration. The police told
the demonstrators that they had not been notified in advance of the
demonstration and that that had made it unlawful.

I’ve spent time with Jorge. He is not a professional agitator: it would
be hard to find a nicer and gentler man. But he is typical of many Spanish
people who believe the response of their authorities to the deepest economic
crisis many can remember must be questioned.

In 2012 there were fully 15,000 demonstrations throughout Spain—in 2013,
25,000. This major social mobilisation is the organised public response to high
unemployment and austerity measures adopted by the central and autonomous
regional governments, which have resulted in cuts to basic services including
health and education. It is the resistance of groups affected by decisions they
consider in violation of their human rights.

For the authorities the increasing number of demonstrations however shows
that citizens enjoy their human rights, including to peaceful assembly and
expression. They also claim that public order needs to be maintained and that
the police need the power to do so.

Penalising protest

Yet the authorities’ response to the protests has been characterised by unnecessary
and excessive force. They have fined participants and organisers, harassed,
stigmatised and imprisoned ordinary people on criminal charges and introduced
legislation that imposes additional restrictions on the freedom of peaceful
assembly.

Sadly, the organisers of protests and the participants face many
challenges when trying to gather peacefully and express their views to those
they voted into power. First of all, a gathering or demonstration with more
than 20 people requires prior notification to the authorities, in writing and at
least 10 days in advance—Spanish legislation doesn’t allow for spontaneous
demonstrations.

Only in urgent cases, which must be justified on extraordinary and
serious grounds, can notifications be accepted within 24 hours. It is not however
clear in the law what amounts to extraordinary or serious grounds—even if there
is not enough time to apply for an authorisation and there is a specific need
for an urgent political message to be delivered.

The concern is that notification has become the mechanism for authorisation.
Penalties for attending demonstrations without the required notification have
been reported throughout Spain. When there is a peaceful assembly the police
usually carry out a collective identity check, asking each of the participants for
ID and recording their details. Some might find out weeks or months later that
they have been fined for participating in an un-notified demonstration or for
obstructing traffic.

Participants attending a demonstration of which the police haven’t been
notified can be fined between €300 and €30,050 euros, simply for their
attendance. This is stretching the law where it shouldn’t go. Indeed most
protests are banned or dispersed with the justification that the authorities
are preserving law and order.

Whiles states have an obligation to guarantee the rule of law, some degree
of tolerance for the inevitable disruption demonstrations entail is important.
To exercise the right to freedom of assembly means protesters must have a real
opportunity to get their message across to the right people, particularly when
this relates to public representatives. Assemblies should be encouraged and not
repressed.

Protest is a necessary check on political power.

Yet the authorities have also imposed a general restriction on all demonstrations
in the vicinity of official buildings or institutions or offices or residences
of key politicians. This goes beyond what is allowed under international human-rights
law. Surely, if you want your messages to reach those in power, you have to go
somewhere where there’s a chance they’ll hear you.

Of course, the security forces are empowered to take act to maintain
order during demonstrations but there is a clear distinction between peaceful
protest and violent disorder which could lead to a breach of the law. The
police are entitled too to carry out identity checks on the streets as part of
their duty, when such checks are necessary to ensure security. But they should
not be used to intimidate or control those who are law-abiding.

Spain is restricting the rights to peaceful assembly, association and free
expression in a manner inconsistent with international human-rights standards
and a country’s obligations under international law. And, rather than seeking
to close these gaps, the government has taken a step further—submitting
legislative proposals that would increase the scope for penalising protest
organisers and participants.

Austerity anger

Spain is not alone. Many demonstrations have taken place in cities across
the EU in response to austerity measures. As public resources and services have
become more scarce, anger over cuts in jobs and incomes has grown—leading to
widespread protests, sometimes violent. In Greece, Spain and Romania the police
have used force to disperse these demonstrations.

Human-rights organisations have documented incidents in several
countries: use of excessive force, abuse of “less-lethal” weapons, obstructing
access to medical assistance and arbitrary detention. In many cases, officers
have repeatedly hit peaceful demonstrators with batons, including on the head
and neck, causing serious injuries.

We must also remember
how easy it is for a situation to get out of hand. In Turkey and Greece, for
example, violent
disturbances have issued from a disproportionate reaction by the police to
those who had gathered peacefully on the streets. The police may
confront demonstrators with the stated aim “to protect public order” but when
they adopt an
attitude of hostility towards
those criticising the government—imposing
excessive restrictions and force—they become
the object of the protesters’ anger.

The result is a loss
of trust and respect and, as we’ve seen, violence which
threatens the safety of all: protesters,
passers-by and the
police themselves. We have also seen in recent years in Russia and, in the past
year, in Ukraine how far a situation can escalate when
the authorities do not give space to public protest but
instead introduce measures to repress peaceful assembly.

Restoring confidence

A demonstration which
ends in violence represents a failure on the part of the state to secure and facilitate a peaceful protest.
The Spanish authorities have said the police often intervene when extremist
groups turn a demonstration violent. Yet such talk is a
distraction, an excuse for behaviour that falls short of international
standards. The actions of a few should not lead to the abuse of many
law-abiding people. There have been more peaceful protests in Spain in the last
few years than there have been violent ones. 

Most cases of
violence by the police themselves during demonstrations seem to be swept under
the carpet. If an investigation is opened, it tends to drag on for years or to
be closed because the officers were difficult to identify as they were not
wearing a badge. In most cases there is no reparation for the victims.

The authorities
must look at restoring the confidence of the public
by protecting and facilitating the right to protest. There are plenty of positive examples in the world of measures taken to
prevent violence, even in tense situations. It can be done with good
co-operation and trust between protest organisers,
participants and law-enforcement officials.
Communication and political will are required to avoid provocations (intentional
or negligent) and misunderstandings, and
to allow society to find solutions to problems together.

Counterposing
government to protesters can only mean human rights will continue to be
violated and the freedoms for which people have fought will disappear. Restriction
of freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration may seem justifiable, even
attractive, to government but it will only further alienate the public from
those they have placed in authority.

Protest is a necessary
check on political power. A developed society sees peaceful assembly as a vital
and healthy part of its existence—not something to be suppressed.

Sideboxes

'Read On' Sidebox: 

See more from Amnesty on the right to protest under threat in Spain, on policing demonstrations in the EU and generally on policing assemblies, and a report from Human Rights Watch on the denial of shelter.

Country or region: 
Spain
Topics: 
Democracy and government
Economics