Spain - Legal action against policing of demonstrations

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In an evaluation report of legal actions against police misconduct in Barcelona, presented by Jaume Asens of the Commissió de defensa del drets de la persona del Collegi d´Advocats de Barcelona (Barcelona Lawyer´s Association Commission for the Defence of Human Rights) at a meeting of the Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in Globalisation held in the Catalan city on 25-26 April 2003, a number of issues arising from demonstrations held on 24 June 2001 and 15 March 2002 were examined.

The first demonstration saw over 60 persons injured as a result of riot police charges against the main demonstration. This had been largely peaceful, though some violence had occurred in the form of vandalism. Asens asked why the police intervened only after the vandalism had occurred, without taking any action to prevent it; why several journalists were assaulted (with a journalist and cameraman detained); and why several witness accounts (including by MPs) agreed in suggesting that policemen armed with bars had acted as "agents provocateurs".

A case was brought against Julia García Valdecasas, the Delegada del gobierno (government representative), and several high-level police officials using the acción popular process, whereby members of the public can exercise a role as prosecutors, with the participation of over 60 organisations. The charges were shelved due to the "failure to identify the disguised police officers", in spite of over 100 testimonies, 13 hours of video recordings and photographic material documenting the excesses of police action, and an appeal against the closing of the case has now been filed. Nonetheless, Asens feels that the case helped to provoke a debate around the "limits of police action" and the "wide margins of discretion or impunity" that it enjoys. For example, as there is no way of identifying riot police officers, it is impossible to attribute offences to anyone, even if their occurrence has been proven.

The demonstration attended by 500,000 persons in Barcelona on 15 March 2002 saw 52 persons injured and 112 arrested (some of whom alleged ill-treatment while held in Verneda police station). In this instance, activity by lawyers included the setting up of legal teams, and the provision of legal defence at borders, as a response to the ever-increasing practice by EU states of closing borders when they stage events that may be the focus for protests. The refusal by Spanish border guards to allow 750 Portuguese demonstrators (including MPs, one of whom was ill-treated as he tried to intervene on behalf of demonstrators) to cross the Spanish-Portuguese border in Rosal de la Frontera caused a diplomatic row. The Commissió de defensa del drets de la persona del Collegi d´Advocats de Barcelona filed a lawsuit, again through the acción popular process, against the contravention of the exercise of the right to free movement, which does not allow a collective refusal of entry. Suits have also been presented against the refusal to allow a Belgian and a Spanish lawyer into Spain.

"Fabrication" of offences against demonstrators

With regards to the defence of persons detained on the demonstration, Asens notes that it had positive results, with many having the charges against them dismissed, or being found not guilty in court. Irregularities, malpractice and false statements by police officers have also been alleged by judges. In one instance, where a demonstrator was arrested after seeking shelter from clashes in an ATM machine outlet, the accused was found not guilty and police officers were accused of fabricating an offence. In fact, after being arrested for participating in disturbances, an additional charge of "possession of explosives", in the form of a molotov cocktail, was brought before the judge by police officers. The judge noted several inconsistencies, including the fact that police records spoke of a litre bottle, when a half-litre bottle was presented as evidence, and that records also said that the bottle was closed with its original cork, whereas a cloth or wick would have been required "if the bottle was to be used as a molotov cocktail". In another case, (see below) four policemen were placed under investigation for "fabricating" an offence to justify detentions, and two demonstrators were found not guilty of resisting the authorities and causing injuries, after video evidence contradicted police testimonies.

Pre-emptive criminalisation

Asens notes that both demonstrations saw authorities predict disorder and violence to discourage massive protests, and to discredit protestors prior to the demonstrations to pre-emptively justify the possible use of violence by police. Other common features include the use of the image of the "violent person", whereby under the pretext of "protecting demonstrators" from violent elements among them, they are charged in an indiscriminate manner; violence directed at the press, including the damage or confiscation of materials that may be used as evidence; and the practice of large-scale arrests.

Asens also noted recent efforts have been made by the Spanish state to link left-wing dissident and squatter groups, claiming that this approach is giving rise to the notion that they are terrorists themselves, through the expansion of the notion of terrorism. He illustrates this by pointing to the arrest of four youths in a social centre (Malas Pulgas) in Valencia for forming "a group in transition towards violent insurrection", on the basis of actions carried out against estate agents. Jaume Asens views judicial actions to criminalise anarchists and squatters in Baix Llobregat, and anti-fascists and independentists in Torá as terrorists, undertaken by Audiencia nacional judge Baltasar Garzón, as following a pattern of expansion in what constitutes a terrorist offence.

Source: Comissió de defensa del drets de la persona del collegi d´advocats de Barcelona; Informe Valoratiu de les accions legals contra la repressió policiaca a Barcelona; Jaume Asens, member of the defence commision. Presentation at the Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in Globalisation, 25.4.2003.

Four policemen under investigation for illegal detention of demonstrators

The Fifth Section of the Barcelona Court overturned guilty verdicts against two people arrested on 15 March 2002 for resisting the authorities and causing injuries during a demonstration "Against the Europe of Capital" and the hosting of a European Summit during the Spanish Presidency. The court also ordered that the four policemen who detained them should be investigated for bringing false charges against the two, illegal detention, simulating a crime and false testimonies. The ruling considered their actions as a "clear attempt to manipulate justice", particularly serious because it was perpetrated by police officers "who have the mission of protecting the exercise of citizens´ fundamental rights and the duty of cooperating with the administration of justice". One of the accused demonstrators had received a 6-month sentence in the first trial, and both received fines. However, in this case the court disagreed with the police version after viewing videotapes, claiming that "What the court has seen has absolutely nothing to do with what the officers declared", adding that they were arbitrarily arrested without offering resistance. Source: El País 6.3.03

Protestors charged with belonging to terrorist group

Five people detained in Barcelona and Almería (Andalucía) during anti-war demonstrations on Friday 21 February 2003, were accused of carrying out ten acts of vandalism over four years against banks, political party offices and temporary employment agencies by prosecutors, who charge them with belonging to a violent "terrorist" anarchist group. Defence lawyer Jaume Asens claims that "It is the first time that in Catalunya some events that represent public disorder or criminal damage are construed as a terrorist offence". Source: El País 25-6.2.03.

Plastic bullets fired in police charges against demonstrators in Madrid

Clashes between protestors and Spanish police and riot police resulted in 178 persons being injured (including 37 police officers) and 7 arrests, during demonstrations in the week after the attack on Iraq was launched by the US and UK armed forces. José María Aznar´s government supports the war, and backed it in the UN Security Council. This stance isolated his Partido Popular (PP) in the Spanish parliament, with all the other parties opposing the war as illegal and unwarranted. The mobilisation against the war has seen Spain´s largest-ever demonstrations, with well over a million people turning out in Madrid and Barcelona on 15 February 2003, and further demonstrations in dozens of cities nationwide.

Demonstrations and clashes

A number of student strikes and demonstrations took place after the war began, often supported by teachers and faculties across the country. In Madrid, an "unauthorised" but peaceful student march on Friday 21 March was charged repeatedly throughout the day by the police to prevent it reaching its targets: the central office of the PP, the Cortes (parliament), and the central Puerta del Sol. When a 2,000-strong group of protestors reached the Puerta del Sol, ten police vans stormed into the square, and it was quickly cleared, with dozens of rubber bullets fired to break up the protestors, and effectively "took" the area. Rubber bullets had already been fired to prevent people from demonstrating outside the PP central office. The evening ended with over 50 people reportedly injured, five of whom were policemen.

Violent clashes also occurred during a larger, authorised, demonstration the next day. Over 100 people were wounded as the demonstration degenerated into clashes, with stone-throwing and vandalism by demonstrators and widespread street fighting after police charges in Calle Montera, which descends into the Puerta del Sol. Police were seen charging a group that was staging a sit-down protest in the Gran Vía. Images on Spanish television showed officers attacking people without provocation: in one instance, a woman asked for an explanation after a friend who lay on the ground had been beaten by officers, received a violent truncheon blow to the head that knocked her down. The Dirección General de Policía ordered an investigation into the incident.

Angel Acebes, interior minister, described the actions of the police, who have been on "maximum alert" since the start of the war "to avoid any act that ... may alter public order", as "proportionate". Defending the actions of riot police units, José Manuel Sanchez Fornet, the general secretary of the Sindicato Unificado de Policía (police trade union), criticised political figures such as Francisco Javier Ansuátegi, the government representative in Madrid, for "giving orders of maximum inflexibility".

Collective responsibility

The government used the clashes to accuse parties including the main opposition party, PSOE (Socialist Workers´ Party), of irresponsible behaviour and of instigating the violence through their "electoralist" opposition to the war in Iraq. In doing so, they dismissed opinion polls showing that up to 90% of the Spanish people were opposed to the war, and the fact that some members its own party, including former employment minister Manuel Pimentel, and some local councillors (13 in the southern region of Andalusia) have left the party in protest. According to PP spokesman Javier Arenas, there was now only one party left in the "centre" of the political spectrum (his own), with the PSOE having moved to the "radical left". Arenas publicly accused 80 politicians from the PSOE and Izquierda Unida (IU, the United Left party) of instigating "violence", including attacks against PP offices, such as a firebomb attack in Pontevedra in Galicia, egg-throwing and anti-war heckling during public acts attended by PP officials. As evidence, he produced photographs of members of the parties attending demonstrations and holding banners. Placards in Cordoba town council accusing PP members of being "assassins" for their support of the war, were also included. This attitude mirrors the Spanish EU Presidency proposal in 2002 that any organisation taking part in a demonstration in which violence occurred should be deemed to be abusing their legal status to provide cover for such "criminal" activity.

The government is trying to criminalise opposition parties for their opposition to the war and for participating in demonstrations which have also seen the involvement of trade unions, students and university faculties, the Madrid Social Forum network of NGO´s and others, such as the Culture against the War platform, which involves actors and writers. Public figures who spoke out against the war are also being targeted, including Audiencia Nacional judge Baltasar Garzón, who wrote an article in El País criticising Aznar´s support for a war he described as "illegal", and a former Spanish business attaché who was head of the Spanish diplomatic mission in Baghdad: Fernando Valderrama who resigned last October in opposition to the government´s support for US arguments. Garzón has had a complaint lodged against him before the Disciplinary Committee of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (General Council of the Judiciary), whereas Valderrama has had his employment and wages suspended for eight months as a sanction for "disobedience" to his superiors. Valderrama said the response "has an authoritarian smell". A legal challenge has also been filed by the PP against a website ( for calling Aznar, Bush and Blair "murderers".

Source: El Pais 4.3, 22.3, 24.3, 25.3, 1.4, 2.4, 4.4, 5.4.03

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