In the last few weeks dozens of people have been charged in Catalonia for one reason or another: mocking the Spanish police, discussing the independence referendum in class, passing a motion against the deployment of Spanish police in Catalonia … In the last days, they have also threatened to prosecute people over posts on Twitter. We discuss all that with Sergi Blàzquez, the chairman of Drets.
Yesterday Drets [Rights] and other Catalan associations unveiled a manifesto at an event held in the HQ of Barcelona’s Bar Association. The document denounces the politicisation of justice and is titled “A coup against the rule of law”. Since the crackdown on the day of the independence referendum, dozens of people have been charged for one reason or another: mocking the Spanish police (for instance, actor Eduard Biosca or El Jueves, a satirical magazine), discussing the referendum in class (eight teachers in La Seu d’Urgell), passing a motion against the deployment of Spanish police in Catalonia (the general complaint lodged against the town of Reus) … In the last days, they have threatened to prosecute people over posts on Twitter.
We discuss all that, as well as the situation of Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez [the two grassroots leaders who are in jail along with eight Catalan ministers] with Sergi Blàzquez, the chairman of Drets [a Catalan NGO that provides legal counsel to activists]. Blàquez says that he was not expecting the law and the Spanish criminal code to be twisted like this in order to repress secessionism, but is confident that the professionalism of ordinary judges will prevail because they are far removed from the political influence exerted on Spain’s prosecution, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.
—Yesterday you hosted an event at the HQ of Barcelona’s Bar Association entitled “A coup against the rule of law”. What was it about?
—We rolled out a manifesto signed by over one thousand lawyers denouncing the use of justice for partisan ends and the use of the prosecutor and the institutions of the justice system to stage a flagrant violation of our liberties, rights and the rule of law. The event was initially a protest against Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart being remanded in custody, but the arrests of the vice president and the other ministers obviously meant we had to change that.
—In what way have their rights been infringed upon?
—It is unthinkable that any of the facts should be characterised as sedition, uprising or rebellion, the charges brought against them. We also denounce that fact that Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional is not the court of law where a defendant is supposed to be tried for such crimes. It is a violation of Article 24 of the Spanish constitution because it is an examining magistrate who should be looking into those accusations. Likewise, none of the requirements for prison without bail pending trial are met, and that should be only the last resort, as enshrined in Spain’s criminal code and Criminal Prosecution Act. There is no risk of the defendants fleeing, destroying evidence or reoffending. The court’s decision is so arbitrary that it borders on neglect of duty. As lawyers, we decry this publicly. They are political prisoners and we demand their immediate release.
—Do you believe there are enough grounds for Belgium’s justice to dismiss Spain’s European Arrest Warrant against president Puigdemont and the ministers that are with him in Brussels?
—Spanish justice violates fundamental rights and liberties. We believe that an unbiased court of law will see that right away. I believe there are sufficient grounds, indeed, that their lawyers will prove those violations existed and that, in normal circumstances, they will not be extradited and the warrant will be disregarded.
—Has the rule of law been twisted in order to criminalise and persecute secessionism?
—Absolutely. The law has been bent to suit their own interpretation of the facts. Ideology, political thoughts and a certain way of thinking are being persecuted. Events are deliberately misconstrued as crimes, even though in some cases they were never punishable offences at all. Drets has filed hundreds of complaints for ideological reasons, for encouraging hatred and violence and for discriminating against Catalans, but there’s always been impunity and charges have not been pressed by the police, the prosecutor’s office or a court of law. Funnily enough, now the prosecutor is very keen to lodge a complaint against anyone over a joke, a tweet, for supporting Catalan independence or the independence process. Different standards are applied: one to secessionism and another in support of their interests.
—Incitement to hatred is the offence that is being used to prosecute teachers and the general public, as in the town of Reus. Is it applicable in those cases?
—Incitement to hatred, violence and discrimination are crimes committed for reasons of gender, religion, ethnicity or ideology. All the instances of threats, slurs and coercion that we have reported were for national origin. Now they claim that ideological hatred is being stirred up against Spanish police as a whole. Actor Eduard Biosca has been prosecuted over a joke, there’s the satirical magazine El Jueves, the general complaint lodged against the town of Reus and the people who protested the Spanish police who were quartered in Calella hotels … There is an ongoing operation, a persecution of the people who resent the presence of the Spanish police and criticise their brutality against the general public. They dislike that and use this article to allege that the police are being harassed. We’ll see what the judges rule.
—Do you think those prosecutions will hold? Can a judge accept them?
—I don’t think so. Not when you look at the law. Cracking a joke, casting a slur or writing a political manifesto demanding that the police leave your town are but an opinion. It is freedom of expression and political criticism against the situation we are in. You cannot persecute them with the criminal law. Both the prosecutor’s office and those who reported the cases —mainly the Spanish police but also some groups— are to blame for it. When all that eventually lands on a judge’s desk, in principle ideology will be put aside and the whole thing will be dismissed.
—Let’s talk about those who file the complaints. Often they are groups such as Societat Civil Catalana and Vox. Is that the machinery that sets the judiciary’s wheels in motion?
—Yes. Essentially, it’s the prosecutor’s office, whose instructions were to chase after anything that gave off a whiff of referendum. They’ve prosecuted people who were hanging up banners, others who were manning stalls. Also people whom the police identified at polling stations. Some are being charged with disobedience. And these fringe groups, such as Vox, the far right, Societat Civil Catalana, they keep lodging complaints because they feel strong backed by the Spanish police and the prosecutor.
—People are being threatened with being prosecuted over a tweet. On Saturday Spain’s Interior Minister pointed out a Twitter user who mocked Maza’s recent death [Spain’s Attorney General]. Does that hold water?
—We have a great deal of experience in such cases. Drets began its public activities by reporting threats and slurs against Catalans merely for being Catalan. The prosecutor dismissed most of our reports. And some were very serious, such as the Germanwings plane crash and the crime committed at the Joan Fuster secondary school. We reported messages on Twitter against Catalans because we felt they were a punishable offence. We do not endorse jokes about the death of Spain’s Attorney General and we condemn them, but the prosecutor’s office should follow the same criterion in all cases, instead of pressing charges only in some.
—All this context leaves the general public defenceless. There’s even talk of deliberate scaremongering so that people will censor themselves. Is that the result of a lack of guarantees?
—The guarantees provided by the rule of law have shrunk to a great extent. A policy of recentralisation and diminished guarantees, rights and liberties for the general public all lead to defencelessness. Article 155 of the Spanish constitution is having a very clear effect in Catalonia: the right to vote, the right to choose our representatives and government are being infringed upon. There’s also the gag law, for instance, which allows for a heavy-handed legal response, if you are reported. There is an attempt to create an atmosphere of dread so that people will self-censor and refrain from joking or expressing their views. It’s a full-on persecution.
—Is the shutting down of web pages that provide information about cultural or pro-independence groups and their activities part of all that?
—Yes, of course. But it’s not just the web sites that have been shut down: there’s also the prosecution of the people who reopened or cloned them. There are about twenty IT professionals facing charges for cloning web sites. They seized Òmnium’s magazine and there is growing fear among school teachers, reporters, mayors and elected councillors about voicing their feelings. We attorneys are afraid of providing legal counsel because our own words might be construed as a criminal offence. This is extremely serious!
—From your words, you would get the impression that the rule of law is turning into a police state.
—We’re headed in that direction. Firstly, there are ten thousand additional police officers in Barcelona that weren’t here six weeks ago. They have a dedicated IT department that combs through the networks and everything that gets posted there. It is the job of the police to ensure that people are safe, but all of a sudden you have ten thousand officers who are here to watch you and impede a referendum (which was eventually held). Why are they still here? Perhaps their job is to intimidate and coerce.
—Earlier we were discussing the situation of the political prisoners. Is the European Court of Human Rights the last legal resort for them and the only way out of Spain’s judicial cage?
—That’s about it. The Strasbourg court is the last resort and you can only get there once you have exhausted every recourse: an ordinary trial, an appeal and an appeal for annulment filed with the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Once there is a final ruling, you may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. That’s the procedure, with some exceptions, such as in torture cases. The trouble is that it may be years before a ruling is handed down.
—As a lawyer, did you expect the law and the criminal code to be twisted to this extent?
—Absolutely not. I used to think that Spain was a democratic country where you could dissent and support independence. Or be a republican and criticise the king or be a communist and fight capitalism … The constitution enshrined that right. But the minute you question Spain’s unity, every law, the whole constitution and all the guarantees are violated because all that is made subservient to the preservation of Spain’s unity. There is no rule of law because there are no guarantees. I’d like to see criminal law teachers explain to their students the requirements for remanding someone in custody: a student might raise their hand and argue that none of that actually applies. In order to serve their own ends, the laws are being bent to such an extent that the rule of law has effectively been wiped out.