Spain: authorities set on crushing right to protest - new report

A demonstrator struggles with riot police in Madrid, 2012
A demonstrator struggles with Spanish National Police riot officers outside parliament in Madrid, September 2012 © REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The excessive use of force by Spanish police and plans to strengthen repressive legislation are a damning indictment of the Spanish government’s determination to crush peaceful protest, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

The 85-page report - Spain: The right to protest under threat - exposes police violence against demonstrators and harassment of protest leaders, and a complete lack for accountability for these abuses. It warns that proposed changes to already repressive protest laws would mean that demonstrators face further charges and increased penalties.

Report: Spain - The right to protest under threat

Since the economic and financial crisis hit Spain, the loss of jobs, austerity measures and the perceived lack of transparency in decision-making, have led thousands of people to take to the streets.

In 2012, there were nearly 15,000 demonstrations throughout Spain, amounting to around 40 per day. In 2013, there were 4,500 demonstrations in Madrid alone: an increase of 1,000 from the year before.

As the government itself has recognised, demonstrators committed violence in less than one per cent of the rallies.

Jezerca Tigani, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director, said:

“The Spanish police have repeatedly used batons and rubber bullets against demonstrators, injuring and maiming protestors and by-standers alike.

“The Spanish authorities are moving in the wrong direction. By further restricting the rights to freedom of expression and assembly they will only increase the chasm between those in power and the people of Spain. Public discontent cannot be stifled with repression.”

Excessive use of force and detention

The police routinely use excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations with protestors beaten, arrested, detained, prosecuted and fined. 

While police may sometimes have to use force in order to maintain public order and safety and prevent crime, they must comply with the state’s obligations under international law to ensure freedom of assembly.   

However, police in Spain have used excessive force with impunity. 

Amnesty has documented the excessive use of force by police, including the use of batons and rubber bullets resulting in unwarranted injuries. 

After a protest in Barcelona in 2012, Ester Quintana was hit by a rubber bullet fired by the police, causing her to lose her left eye. She told Amnesty: 

“Due to the impact of the rubber bullet, I have a deformed nasal septum, injuries in my mouth and my ear, and have lost sensation on the left side of my face. I am still under psychological treatment, my daily routine has been affected, as well as the way I am connected with people, how I am seen by them. I’ve been denied any kind of social benefits I have applied for.” 

Detainees have also been ill-treated when taken into police custody. 

Several individuals held in the Moratalaz police station in Madrid described the violent and humiliating treatment they received. Officers forced them to stand facing a wall for hours on end. 

Journalists and photographers covering demonstrations have also reported being the target of police violence. Cameras and equipment have been damaged by police to prevent the documenting of police violence. 

Repressive laws

Under Spanish law, individuals deemed to be the organisers or leaders of unauthorised demonstrations can be fined up to €30,050. 

Maria, who was fined €1,000 for protesting against budget cuts, told Amnesty: 

“They want to destroy the leadership of the movements, and so are seeking out the spokespeople. I keep participating in demonstrations and other activities, because I’ve been told we’d all pay the fine jointly; but you can see that there is fear. Young people who have no job cannot afford to pay the fines.” 

The European Court of Human Rights has stated that freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that participants should not be penalised unless they commit a crime. 

Planned reforms to the Criminal Code and the Law on the Protection of Public Safety will introduce a range of new charges targeting protesters and increase penalties.

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Spain - The right to protest under threat