Spain's conviction for sedition of Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart threatens rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly

The conviction of Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart for sedition violates their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and they must be immediately released, said Amnesty International today, following the publication of its analysis of the judgement handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court last month.

The jail terms handed down to the two civil society leaders and to seven other senior Catalan officials resulted from the vague definition of the crime of sedition in the Spain’s Criminal Code, and an overly broad and dangerous interpretation of this definition by the Supreme Court.

“Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart must be released immediately and their convictions on the charge of sedition must be quashed,” said Daniel Joloy, Senior Policy Advisor at Amnesty International.

“Whilst our analysis did not find any factors suggesting that the trial as a whole was unfair, it is clear that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the crime of sedition was overly broad and resulted in criminalizing legitimate acts of protest.”

Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart must be released immediately and their convictions on the charge of sedition must be quashed
Daniel Joloy, Amnesty International

As private citizens and leaders of civil society organizations, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart had a right to express their opinions and to organize peaceful meetings to support the referendum and the independence of Catalonia.

Even if the purpose of any of these meetings or their actions was to prevent the enforcement of a judicial resolution, peaceful civil disobedience is also protected under international human rights law. Bringing overly-harsh charges to acts of civil disobedience unduly restricts the right to peaceful assembly and breaches international law.

Having monitored the whole trial, Amnesty International concludes that the nine-year sentences imposed on Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart for sedition represent a disproportionate restriction on their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. It further finds that the Supreme Court failed to demonstrate that the imposition of such severe penalties was proportionate to the peaceful acts of which they were accused.

The Supreme Court's interpretation of the crime of sedition was overly broad and resulted in criminalizing legitimate acts of protest
Daniel Joloy, Amnesty International

“The sentences given to Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart clearly constitute an excessive and disproportionate restriction on their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said Amnesty Spain’s Director, Esteban Beltran.

"Parliament must urgently revise the definition of the crime of sedition to avoid criminalizing peaceful acts of civil disobedience or unduly restricting freedom of peaceful assembly or expression.”

Amnesty International is further concerned that the Court linked the gravity of the offence to the assessment that the opposition to the enforcement of a court order was "massive or generalized". In so doing, the Court opened the door to the possibility for the authorities to impose an unlawful cap on the amount of people that can simultaneously exercise their right to protest peacefully.

The lack of clarity around the crime of sedition in the Criminal Code as interpreted by the Court is allowing the imposition of undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. As a result, a wide range of non-violent direct actions are being wrongfully criminalised.

Parliament must urgently revise the definition of the crime of sedition to avoid criminalizing peaceful acts of civil disobedience or unduly restricting freedom of peaceful assembly or expression
Esteban Beltran, Amnesty International Spain

The vagueness of the definition of sedition and its overly-broad interpretation also brings into question the convictions for sedition imposed on the Catalan political leaders.

“Whilst the Catalan political leaders might have committed an offence that could have been legitimately prosecuted given their official positions, their conviction for sedition - a crime that is too vaguely defined - is in breach of the principle of legality. The authorities must urgently provide an adequate remedy to this situation,” said Adriana Ribas, Amnesty International coordinator in Catalonia.

This ruling demonstrates that the vague nature of the definition of the crime of sedition allows it to be used excessively
Adriana Ribas, Amnesty International Catalonia

“Everyone has the right to know if their conduct may constitute a crime. But this ruling demonstrates that the vague nature of the definition of the crime of sedition allows it to be used excessively. The interpretation of this crime by the Supreme Court could have a  chilling effect that could prevent people from participating in peaceful protests without fear.”

BACKGROUND
Amnesty International monitored the proceedings against 12 Catalan leaders in relation to the events that took place in Catalonia around the referendum on 1 October 2017, including by attending all the sessions of the trial held in Madrid.

The sentences were handed down on 14 October. Seven senior Catalan officials, as well as two leaders of civil society organizations, were sentenced to terms of between nine and 13 years in prison and disqualification from holding public office for the crime of sedition. Three other senior officials were convicted of the crime of disobedience and sentenced to a fine and disqualification from holding public office.

According to international human rights law, restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly must be provided by law and be necessary and proportionate to a specified public interest. A demonstration does not lose its peaceful character because some illegality is committed or because of the use of violence by some protesters.

Moreover, while peaceful behaviour in the conduct of a protest may be subjected to certain restrictions, these must be duly set out in law.  Any criminal offence needs to be formulated with sufficient clarity to enable people to regulate their conduct accordingly.