04 August 2020
Sixteen Guardia Civil officers have walked free from court in Cádiz following a ruling that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute them for their involvement in the deaths of 15 people who tried to reach Spanish territory by sea, and the ‘hot return’ (summary expulsion) of 23 other people to Morocco, in February 2014.
The episode, known as the Tarajal case, saw 200 people attempt to reach the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which is located in North Africa and borders Morocco. Fifteen of those who tried to swim to Ceuta drowned as Guardia Civil officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to halt their journey, while 23 people who did make it to Ceuta were immediately expelled to Morocco in what is referred to in Spain as a ‘hot return’ (devolución en caliente).
When the incident came to light a group of civil society organisations (Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado, CEAR; Coordinadora de Barrios; and Observatori DESC) brought a legal challenge seeking justice and compensation for the victims’ families, but a court in Ceuta declined to push for an investigation and instead legitimised ‘hot returns’ because
Following an appeal the case was re-opened in August 2018 by the Cádiz courts, which considered that the testimony of victims and witnesses had not been taken into account. Sixteen Guardia Civil officers who were on the ground that day were asked to appear testify regarding the they took against the group and the lack of assistance offered to people in distress.
Nevertheless, last week, on 28 July, the Audencia Regional of Cádiz rejected the NGOs’ case on the grounds that there was no sufficient evidence to charge Guardia Civil officers for their actions, even if they had caused the deaths of 15 people and led to the push-back of the rest of the group that did make it to Spanish territory.
The NGOs involved have not yet made a decision about appealing against the judgment, but it has caused an outcry amongst those working on the defence of migrants and refugees’ rights.
CEAR said on Twitter:
"The judicial decision which absolves 16 Guardia Civil officers in the #Tarajal case of the death of 15 people on 6 February 2014 is DISAPPOINTING.
We will continue to insist that their actions were not 'proportional', 'convenient' or 'accurate'.
Along with the lack of justice and compensation for the victims and their families, we are especially concerned by the precedent this ruling may set for impunity and violation of human rights at our southern border."
The Morocco-based human rights activist Helena Maleno wrote that the judgment would cause "terrible sorrow" for the families of those who died, and that "we are seeing the wrecking of human rights and democracy." In 2018 the Spanish government denied visas to the families of the dead, who were due to visit the country to explain their situation.
The decision of the Cádiz court follows the controversial ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in N.D. and N.T. v Spain, in which the practice of 'hot returns' was legitimised in the case of two individuals who entered Spanish territory by climbing the fences surrounding the autonomous city of Melilla, which is located along the coast from Ceuta.
There are three rows of fences surrounding the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, all of which are topped with razor wire. Last year the Spanish government began increasing the height of the fences by 30%, and as part of a plan to “make the border safer” a host of new cameras, some of which will make use of facial recognition technology, will be installed.
 It was passed in 2015 by the conservative government of the PP under the name Law on Citizens’ Security and it has been harshly criticised for its attempts to curtail freedom of expression, among other civil liberties. The current government formed by a coalition of the PSOE and Unidas Podemos has vowed to withdraw the measure but has not done so yet.
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