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Spain: Parliament to vote on 'draconian' reforms that restrict rights of Spanish citizens, migrants and refugees

Draconian reforms to two pieces of Spanish legislation are an assault on the rights of its citizens as well as an attempt to formalise abusive practices against migrants and refugees, said Amnesty International ahead of a vote in parliament this afternoon.

Reforms to the Criminal Code and the Law on Public Security will restrict rights to peaceful assembly, association and freedom of expression. They will also introduce new anti-terror measures and legalise the unlawful push-back of migrants and refugees from Spain’s enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa to Morocco.

‘Legalising’ unlawful push-backs of migrants and refugees

The new amendment to Spain’s immigration law contained in the Law on Public Security will come into immediate effect. It will legalise the automatic and collective expulsion of migrants and refugees from the borders of Ceuta and Melilla by introducing a new administrative practice dubbed “border rejections” (rechazo).

Summary returns of migrants and refugees back to Morocco without formal procedure denies them access to the asylum procedure in Spain and exposes them to the real risk of human rights violations upon return.

An assurance contained in the amendment that the border rejections “will be carried out in compliance with international human rights and international protection norms” rings hollow. The amendment fails to describe how the rights of those trying to cross the border will be upheld during these rejections.

Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Europe Gauri van Gulik said:

“Already vulnerable migrants seeking safety in these enclaves are being rounded up and returned to Morocco.

“Instead of ending this unlawful practice, the government is making up its own rules and trampling over the rights of these people and on Spain’s own international obligations.”

Anti-terror laws

Proposed reforms to the Spanish Criminal Code expand the range of crimes defined as “terrorism” using vague language and overly broad categories of offences. The definition of terrorism has been expanded to include, “resistance” against public authorities and “recklessly”, including unwittingly, supporting a terrorist enterprise.

Suspected travel, or planned to travel, outside Spain to collaborate with militant groups or to train with them, even if no such training occurs or no criminal act is committed, will be outlawed. Information sharing, particularly with foreign security services, raises the prospect of evidence extracted under torture being shared and used for intelligence purposes.

Making a statement on social media that could be “perceived” as inciting others to commit violent attacks will be outlawed, even if the statement cannot be directly linked to an act of violence.

These restrictions threaten the rights to freedom of expression and association, the presumption of innocence, freedom of movement, the right to privacy, and the right to leave and return to one’s country.

Gauri van Gulik said:

“If we have learned anything over recent years, it is that governments’ excessive reactions to violent attacks can lead to unnecessary and abusive laws and practices.

“Spain must heed that lesson and ensure that any new measures are absolutely necessary and proportionate, clearly aim to keep people safe, and uphold human rights in the process. The proposed reforms do not meet these tests."

Restricting protest, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly 

New offences under the Public Security Law unduly restrict the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, criminalising some legitimate forms of protest and increasing penalties for others.

The new provisions contain limitations on where and when demonstrations can take place, including a ban on “spontaneous assemblies” in certain places and fines for those who organise them.

Police officers will be given broad discretion without procedural safeguards to fine people who show a “lack of respect” towards them. Likewise a “gag law” restricts the video recording of police with fines of up to 30,000€ (around £22,000) imposed on those who disseminate footage. In recent years, footage recorded during public demonstrations has been essential to prove excessive use of force and other abuses by police during policing of demonstrations.

Government authorities rather than courts will impose fines for numerous public order offences, risking fair trial guarantees. Since the standards of proof in administrative proceedings are lower than in criminal proceedings, the shift of some offences from the Criminal Code to the Law on Public Security will mean fewer safeguards. The presumption will be that versions of events given by police officials are truthful and correct.

Further curbs on protest are contained in the amendments to the Criminal Code that introduce significant changes to the crime of public disorder. Certain crimes are redefined as “aggravated” when, among other things, they take place in the context of demonstrations or large assemblies. The definition of “obstruction” is so ambiguous that it could include acts of passive resistance potentially putting them on an equal basis with violent acts.

The vague definition of new or amended offences means that they could be applied to conduct that is protected under international human rights law. In this sense, the new legislation breaches the requirement of legal certainty, namely that laws should be formulated with sufficient precision. 

Gauri van Gulik added:

“Spain is taking a serious backward step for freedom of expression and assembly. Fear of terror and public disorder should not be utilised to discourage people from protesting peacefully and to increase police impunity.”

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