Can Europe Make It?

Spain’s response to protests is a dangerous step towards authoritarianism

“The reality is a democratic mass movement increasingly frustrated with successive governments who have sought juridical answers to political problems.”

Tiago Miller
Tiago Miller
4 November 2019
Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska (left) and PM Pedro Sanchez in Barcelona police HQ,  October 21, 2019.
Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska (left) and PM Pedro Sanchez in Barcelona police HQ, October 21, 2019.
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Fernando Calvo/PA. All rights reserved.

The jailing on Monday, October 14, of nine Catalan pro-independence leaders for a total of 100 years sparked six consecutive days of mass demonstrations, road blocks and riots, transforming the region into the epicentre of a debate on political and civil rights.

Despite a second week of protests and a mass pro-independence rally of over 350,000 people in the centre of Barcelona, Spain’s interim government continues to refuse to treat events in Catalonia as a political crisis, instead reiterating claims that disturbances have been the result of small groups of organised separatists backed by a dissident and sectarian regional government. Yet, 600 injuries and 200 arrests (including journalists), 19 hospitalisations, 28 imprisonments and a widely-observed general strike during just the first week of the protests are indications of a problem much larger than acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is – at least publically – willing to admit. While the images of burning barricades and running street battles have stolen the attention of the international media, the reality is a democratic mass movement increasingly frustrated with successive governments who have sought juridical answers to political problems.

The general consensus on both sides of the independence debate is that last week’s sentencing of seven ministers and two civil leaders was politically motivated and that the lengthy prison terms handed down are part of Spain’s ongoing strategy: to use of the courts to derail the growing movement. Critics regard the sentence as having been decided in ministerial offices in the immediate aftermath of the referendum rather than during proceedings at the Supreme Court. During the three-month televised trial, Catalans watched State and Fiscal prosecutors continually manipulate evidence to demonstrate the existence of violence on the day of the popular vote, necessary for the charge of rebellion.

The mass protest on September 20, 2017 by 40,000 people outside the Catalan Department for Economy was portrayed as a siege by an angry mob that threatened the safety of the police conducting a raid there in the lead up to the 1st October referendum. The day of the popular vote itself was characterised as a day of violence, with testimonies by Spanish police that they were subject to insults and hateful looks and that Fairy liquid had been squirted on the ground outside entrances to voting centres so that they would slip and fall – all given as serious evidence. Faced, however, with a lack of credible proof, state prosecutors were eventually forced to file for the lesser charge of sedition, claiming that both days constituted a “tumultuous public uprising” with the aim of illegally obstructing the law. The decision by Judge Manuel Marchena to apply such harsh sentences has subsequently called into question the separation of powers in the country and cast serious doubts over the impartiality of its judicial system.

Sánchez was originally looked to within the independence movement for a break from the hard line approach to Catalonia established by his predecessor Mariano Rajoy. His tabling in June 2018 of a vote of no confidence was supported in Congress by Catalan pro-independence parties who saw the removal of the People’s Party (PP) from government (and therefore of the ministers who had begun the legal proceedings against the now jailed leaders) as an opportunity for fresh dialogue.

These negotiations, however, never materialised and with a general election less than two weeks away, Sánchez has adopted increasingly authoritarian rhetoric towards Catalonia in the face of rising support in the polls for the conservative PP and the far-right VOX. Any lasting hopes that a PSOE government would open the door to negotiating an amnesty for the pro-independence leaders were dashed on the morning of September 23, when nine members of the Catalan activist group CDR were arrested on terrorism charges. Police claim that they formed part of a conspiracy to fabricate explosives for use against political targets in the wake of the sentence. These accusations, however, were met with suspicion by many Catalans who saw the detentions as the government not only preparing the ground for a guilty verdict by the Supreme Court, but also as an attempt to “pre-criminalise” the inevitable protests.

Fears at the time that the same tactics used to jail political rivals were being transferred to civil society have now proven well-founded. On Saturday October 19, acting Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska announced that the government would apply the “full force of the penal code” to anyone it considered to be protesting violently, before reiterating that “crimes against Authority carry a prison sentence of up to 6 years.” There are currently 31 protestors who have been remanded in custody on charges relating to that week’s protests, with some accusing the police of physical and psychological abuse and of planting evidence. The use of pre-trial detention is a commonly used tactic in Spain and there are numerous cases of political activists spending up to two years in custody awaiting trial, only for their cases to be dismissed at court.

Many of the prolonged clashes were, in fact, an angry response to dangerous tactics employed by riot police to disperse what had originally begun as peaceful protests. Actions such as the indiscriminate firing of rubber and foam bullets (4 people lost an eye in just 6 days), police vans charging crowds at high speed, the striking of protestors on the head with batons and the arrest of journalists for recording violent arbitrary detentions have all since been condemned by Amnesty International.

However, what is clear is that many – mainly young – protestors are moving away from the mass marches and symbolic demonstrations that have characterised the independence movement over the last decade and are now seeking to make their voices heard through creative methods of non-violent protest. This space has been filled by Tsunami Democràtic, the group responsible for attempting a large-scale occupation of Barcelona’s El Prat airport just hours after the guilty verdict was announced. Operating exclusively via the messaging platform Telegram, its objective appears to be to occupy strategic locations and disrupt high-profile events as a means to achieve greater international media attention. While Marlaska has publically vowed to “find out who is behind” the group, the Spanish courts have already employed antiterrorism laws to shut down its website. The worry now is that the precedent set by the recent jailing of seven democratically elected leaders has created a political environment in which these legitimate acts of protest can (and will) be punished as serious crimes against the State.

With Sánchez’s recent comments on “law first, dialogue later”, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Spain to reject claims that its use of the police and the courts to resolve its political problems is edging it closer to the authoritarianism of its past. The question now is how much further civil and political rights will be eroded before much needed dialogue takes place.

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