Spain: Protests and the suffocating embrace of the law

The excessive use of force by Spanish police and plans to strengthen repressive legislation are a damning indictment of the Spanish government’s determination to crush peaceful protest, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

“The Spanish government is using the full force of the law to suffocate legitimate peaceful protest,” said Jezerca Tigani, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director.

“The police have repeatedly used batons and rubber bullets against demonstrators, injuring and maiming protestors and by-standers alike. The police act with complete impunity, while peaceful demonstrators and leaders of social movements are continually harassed, stigmatized, beaten, sometimes arrested to face criminal charges, imprisonment and fines.” 

Amnesty International’s report, Spain: The right to protest under threat, exposes violations by police against demonstrators, the lack of accountability for these violations and the determination of the Spanish authorities to strengthen repressive legislation. 

Since the economic and financial crisis hit Spain, the loss of jobs, austerity measures and the perceived lack of transparency in decision-making, have led thousands of people to take to the streets. 

In 2012, there were nearly 15,000 demonstrations throughout Spain, amounting to around 40 per day. In 2013, there were 4,500 demonstrations in Madrid alone: an increase of 1,000 from the year before. 

As the government itself has recognized, demonstrators committed violence in less than one per cent of the rallies.

Excessive use of force and detention

The police routinely use excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations with protestors beaten, arrested, detained, prosecuted and fined.

While police may sometimes have to use force in order to maintain public order and safety and prevent crime, they must comply with the state’s obligations under international law to ensure freedom of assembly.  

However, police in Spain have used excessive force with impunity. 

Amnesty International has documented the excessive use of force by police, including the use of batons and rubber bullets resulting in unwarranted injuries.

After a protest in Barcelona in 2012, Ester Quintana was hit by a rubber bullet fired by the police, causing her to lose her left eye. She told Amnesty International:

“Due to the impact of the rubber bullet, I have a deformed nasal septum, injuries in my mouth and my ear, and have lost sensation on the left side of my face. I am still under psychological treatment, my daily routine has been affected, as well as the way I am connected with people, how I am seen by them. I’ve been denied any kind of social benefits I have applied for.” 

Detainees have also been ill-treated when taken into police custody. 

Several individuals held in the Moratalaz police station in Madrid described the violent and humiliating treatment they received. Officers forced them to stand facing a wall for hours on end. 

Journalists and photographers covering demonstrations have also reported being the target of police violence. Cameras and equipment have been damaged by police to prevent the documenting of police violence.

Repressive laws

Under Spanish law, individuals deemed to be the organisers or leaders of unauthorized demonstrations can be fined up to €30,050. 

Maria, who was fined €1,000 for protesting against budget cuts, told Amnesty International:

“They want to destroy the leadership of the movements, and so are seeking out the spokespeople. I keep participating in demonstrations and other activities, because I’ve been told we’d all pay the fine jointly; but you can see that there is fear. Young people who have no job cannot afford to pay the fines.”

The European Court of Human Rights has stated that freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that participants should not be penalised unless they commit a crime.

A further blow to the right to peaceful assembly are planned reforms to the Criminal Code and the Law on the Protection of Public Safety, which will introduce a range of new charges targeting protesters and increase penalties. 

“Rather than enacting repressive laws, the Spanish government and parliament must review legislation, policies and practices relating to public assemblies and demonstrations in order to ensure they meet international obligations,” said Jezerca Tigani.

“The Spanish authorities are moving in the wrong direction. By further restricting the rights to freedom of expression and assembly they will only increase the chasm between those in power and the people of Spain. Public discontent cannot be stifled with repression,” said Jezerca Tigani.