The proposed law has outraged activists who consider the draft law “an attack on one of the pillars of Spain’s democracy.”
BRUSSELS —Under a new draft law that the Spanish ruling People’s Party is in the process of getting adopted, activists who take part in unauthorized protests at Parliament, or places such as airports and power plants, could face a fine of up to $810,000. It also sets stiff penalties for demonstrations that challenge the electoral process, while participation in “violent” protests can result in a minimum two-year jail sentence.
Among other measures, protesters who cover their faces at demonstrations could be fined up to $40,800; “offenses or outrages” to Spain, such as burning the flag or insulting a police officer during a demonstration could reap a similar sanction. The future law also prohibits taking photos of the police, interrupting public events, possessing illegal drugs, vandalizing public property and drinking alcohol in public spaces and causing a disturbance.
But much of the effect of the new Citizen’s Security Law will depend on how it is interpreted and applied in practice.
“One thing is clear enough, if you come to a demonstration with a placard reading ‘The parliament is full of crooks,’ you can be hit with a fine of 30,000 euros for insulting an institution,” according to Javier Marías, a columnist with the Spanish daily El Pais. “The same goes if you say Madrid is a whorehouse, or the mayor is a jerk. Not to mention if you call members of government fascists, although you may believe you are offering a mere objective description based on real resemblances, rather than insulting anyone.”
Marías thinks “policemen will now be able to hit protesters with their billy, drag them over the ground, insult them and arrest them with or without motive, and demonstrators won’t be allowed to react, not even verbally, or they run the risk of having to pay 1.000 euros, if, for example, they call the policeman who is beating them up an animal.”
Yet Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the law is not meant to gag citizens but to protect them.
“One of the obligations of the government is to guarantee the liberty and security of all of its citizens,” he said.
But there is a fine line though between keeping the peace and denying the people the right to protest, and many citizens now feel the government has crossed that line. As a result, social networks are buzzing with indignant criticism.
An attack against democracy
The proposed law has outraged leftists and civil rights activists who consider the draft law “an attack on one of the pillars of Spain’s democracy” because it penalizes a series of protest measures in what they say is a disregard for democracy in a country that only emerged from right-wing dictatorship in the late 1970s.
“This is absolutely anti-democratic,” said Maria del Vigo, a journalist in Madrid, to MintPress. “First they hide behind the silent majority to ignore the protests, and now they want to scare the people so that no one dares to go out on the streets anymore.”
Del Vigo says that the government has forgotten that it works for the people.
“The government insists that Spain is getting out of recession; they insist in trying to convince us that we can remain quiet. But why do they need to hide behind the Citizen’s Security Law and increase the spending in anti-riot equipment? It is completely inconsistent,” del Vigo added.
The proposed law is disquieting to those generations that lived under the authoritarian regime of Franco.
“The draft law reminds my parents and many of their generation of similar laws and rules that existed in less favorable regimes than a democratic one and that unfortunately, they had to suffer from,” a government employee who wished to remain anonymous told MintPress.
Opposition parties say the bill violates the right to protest and limits free expression in a country that suffered nearly four decades of dictatorship under Franco.
“The government knows that citizens are going to continue to protest on our streets and what they want is to instill fear and paralysis,” said Antonio Hernando, from the opposition Socialist Party. “With the authoritarian drift and the new laws that the government is adopting, the 15-M movement [the Indignados] would never have been possible. We would never have had occupied squares, and we would not have seen all citizens using their freedom of expression, which is fundamental,” he said.
Legal experts question whether the draft law complies with the Spanish Constitution, considering that it is dangerously close to the limits that protects some fundamental rights.
“It is absolutely foolish and looks like a disciplinary code to militarize society,” José Antonio Martín Pallín, a magistrate from the Supreme Court, told El Pais.
Last February, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized Egypt for drafting a similar anti-protest law and for failing to adequately protect freedom of assembly as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two international rights treaties. And last year, the Spanish government also faced criticism after introducing legislation that aimed to reduce public demonstrations by restricting the use of social networking.
Putting a chill on protests
In an open letter, Spanish dramaturge and director Astrid Menasanch Tobieson, who is living in Sweden, launched a dramatic appeal to Swedish journalists: “I write to you with a sense of shock and indignation … Spain, in a few days, will take the road from an open democracy to a (pseudo) fascist and authoritarian democracy … The Spanish government will approve a law whose aim is to put an end to protests and demonstrations. The method: obtain silence through fear. I now request your help and I ask you to cover this. I address myself to all journalists and columnists here in Sweden. You owe the media space. I ask you, from the bottom of my soul, to break the silence about the regime that is growing in Spain. I ask that you start informing.”
Street protests and strikes have become increasingly frequent in Spain in recent years following huge cuts to education and health spending aimed at shrinking the country’s public deficit to adhere to European Union demands. The Spaniards are hit hard by unemployment, with one of the highest jobless rates in Europe – 26 percent – rising poverty and changes in labor laws that make firing easier.
Last year was characterized by a new type of protest called escrache – protests of citizens in front of political representatives’ houses – and by an almost continuous flow of marches. But in contrast to Greece and elsewhere, where many similar protests have turned violent, Spain’s have remained largely peaceful.
It is these protests and demonstrations that the Spanish government now wants to seriously limit with the Citizen’s Security Law. Since the People’s Party has a clear majority in Parliament, the draft law is likely to be adopted, probably by end of January.