Writing in The Observer in 1961, Peter Benenson lamented that ‘in Spain, students who circulate leaflets calling for the right to hold discussions on current affairs are charged with ‘military rebellion’.’
So what? You may ask yourself – that was 57 years ago under the Franco dictatorship. But that’s the point: six decades later in a liberal democracy, dozens of people in Spain have been charged with crimes such as ‘sedition’, ‘rebellion’ and ‘terrorism’ for offences such as blocking roads and bar fights with off-duty police officers.
Benenson, who used his article as the launchpad for founding Amnesty International, added that ‘no government… is at greater pains to emphasise its constitutional guarantees than the Spanish, but it fails to apply them’. This observation rings true today, where the Spanish government and Madrid-based media react with apoplexy at any criticism of Spain’s handling of the Catalan crisis. Spain, they argue, is a modern and mature democracy with separation of powers and legal guarantees.
By coincidence, the Spanish government’s recent travails with Catalan separatists have coincided this spring with the trial of eight youths from the highland town of Altsasu in Navarre. With about 7,500 inhabitants, it’s typical of the middling market towns that make up the Basque nationalist heartland straddling the Franco-Spanish border.
5am bar brawl
In October 2016, the youths became embroiled in a 5am bar fight. The two men they tussled with were off-duty police officers: one of whom suffered a fractured ankle. State prosecutors allege that the youths knew this and that it was an intentional assault; that they sent text messages to others to join in. The eight were arrested and transferred to Madrid, where three have remained ever since awaiting trial without bail.
If convicted, they face sentences of between 12 and 62 years on terrorism-related charges. It is instructive to set out the draconian penalties just one, Oihan Arnanz, faces. Eight years for terroristic public disorder; two years for attacking agents of authority; eight years for non-terrorist lesions; and twelve-and-a-half years for making terroristic threats.
Needless to say, the case has caused consternation in the town and wider Navarre. Locals feel the proposed sentences excessive and vengeful. Baltazar Garzon, the judge who earned fame for trying to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet 20 years ago, has claimed the trial ‘trivialises’ genuine terrorist offences and should never have gone beyond a circuit court.
Human rights charities such as Amnesty and Fair Trials have criticised the use of anti-terror laws to deal with a bar brawl – which would lead to sentences of up to 60 years for a fractured ankle. To further highlight the absurdity of the charges, Rafa Mora, a Spanish reality TV star who was involved in a bar fight with off-duty police officers was fined €300.
Ministers have openly commented on the trial. The Interior Minister has tweeted that the testimony of one of the officers was ‘disturbing’; meanwhile the conservative news website El Español has labelled the accused as the ‘children of hatred’, and the formerly liberal El País has described Navarre as a society that is ‘hostage to xenophobia’.
Yet at the end of the trial, the judge finally allowed evidence from the defence that contradicted court testimonies by the victims and police officers on the scene. In mobile phone footage, one of the victims is seen pacing about outside the pub in a spotless white shirt – despite claiming to have been stamped on and kicked on the pub floor during the attack. The prosecution’s response was to suggest the footage had been edited, and summed up: ‘What we are seeing is fascism in its purest state by the Basque supremacists.’
A short distance away, in another Madrid courtroom, hearings were taking place for an undoubtedly bigger event: the trials against the more than two dozen Catalan nationalists accused of ‘misappropriation of public funds’, ‘sedition’, ‘rebellion’ and ‘terrorism’.
This case has received far more international coverage because of the shocking images of Spanish police beating would-be voters in the unconstitutional independence referendum called by the Catalan regional government on October 1, 2017.
Rebuffed by the central government in Madrid after years of at attempts to negotiate a referendum, the nationalist-controlled regional executive decided to throw down the gauntlet. Quim Arrufat of the hard-left separatist CUP party telegraphed the strategy a year in advance: ‘A unilateral independence referendum would show up the undemocratic contradictions of the state, not just to our people but to the world; so that it resorts to some type of legal or even brute force.’
The inflexible PM Mariano Rajoy took the bait and sent in the stormtroopers. Since then, Madrid has been reeling, especially as half a dozen of the accused have fled to other jurisdictions and extraditing them is proving to be far from straightforward.
The lack of violence by the nationalists is the elephant in the room, though it hasn’t stopped the Madrid press from talking up the ‘violence’. It means that the legal case against them is, at best, flimsy. So flimsy, in fact, that a German court took fewer than 48 hours to reject as ‘inadmissible’ the charges of violent rebellion against Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan president who was arrested in Germany on a European Arrest Warrant. It was a double humiliation for Spain: the court took two days to reject six months of legal work by Spanish prosecutors and it also questioned, by implication, the quality of the rule of law in Spain.
The result has been a spike in anti-German rhetoric by politicians and the Madrid-based media. The more restrained criticism was that it was an insult for a regional German court to rule against Spain’s Supreme Court, while the more volatile have called the decision ‘racist’ and suggested that ‘there are 200,000 German hostages in the Balearic Islands.’
Meanwhile, El Español ran a piece on the Schleswig-Holstein’s ‘Nazi heritage’ – helpfully illustrating it with a triptych of mugshots featuring Puigdemont and Nazi war criminals. Germany’s embassy in Madrid was also on the receiving end, with 4,000 messages arriving per day, ‘many in an insulting tone’, to complain about the tribunal’s decision.
Not ones to let the politicians, media and ordinary public make all the running, Spain’s Supreme Court also weighed in by accusing the German tribunal of a ’lack of rigour’. It also claimed, somewhat cryptically, that had police not intervened on referendum day, “it would have been very probable that a massacre occurred”. It didn’t specify who would have perpetrated the ‘massacre’. Nor did it explain the legal basis for a hypothesis of a crime that never took place actually being a crime. But this fits in with the Orwellian nature of the whole ‘violent’ rebellion charge: In their arrest warrant prosecutors blame the Catalan leadership for inciting civilians for violence on the part of the police, saying that ‘a gathering of approximately 250 people…impeded the access to the polling station…generating the aggression of the officers who intervened.’
The Schleswig-Holstein ruling and the difficulties Spain has encountered in extraditing wanted Catalans from Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland, coupled with what it perceives as unfairly hostile media coverage abroad, has led to a siege mentality. It cuts to the bone even more so because the nationalists are routinely portrayed in the Madrid-based media as xenophobic putschists and even Nazis. Apparently, it doesn’t enter their heads that anyone could characterise them any other way.
Narratives against Catalan nationalism are so widespread that Spain’s paper of record, El País, has taken to comparing Pep Guardiola, the Catalan manager of Manchester City Football Club, with Joseph Goebbels while pumping out op-eds labelling him a ‘liar’. Guardiola is, of course, a Catalan nationalist and delighted to make the point at every opportunity. It’s not just the media who are hounding Guardiola: his family has been subjected to official harassment with his private jet searched and a car his daughter was travelling in stopped by armed police and searched.
The media and Twitter are alight with anger and dismay at reports in The Times – whose ‘Spain Again’ editorial got under the skin of quite a few – Le Monde, Washington Post and Der Spiegel criticising Spain. The message being put out is that it is Spain itself on trial, when it should really be the seditious Catalan putschists.
The mainstream media bristles at this questioning of Spain’s democratic credentials; that Spain’s judiciary is a tool of government policy; and that anyone could think there are ‘political prisoners’ in Spain. They suggest that Spain is once again the victim of ‘black propaganda’ and characterised as Franco-landia.
As the ultraconservative paper, ABC, put it: ‘On the other side of the Pyrenees, the image of an inquisitional and underdeveloped Spain, pseudo-African and intolerant, is as alive as ever.’
Lashing out like that is an example of what award-winning writer John Carlin – who is half-Spanish – calls the ‘insecurity’ of Spanish nationalism. Carlin experienced first-hand the backlash against foreign criticism when he was sacked by El País after two decades as a columnist, for criticising the handling of the Catalan crisis. ‘I do not support separatism,’ he told Catalan news site Vilaweb, ‘But that is not enough. You must absolutely scorn secessionists, almost hate them and systematically disrespect them in a visible manner.’
And Carlin is not alone. Another half-Spanish journalist, Tom Burns, was on the receiving end of a reporter’s ire in a recent El Mundo interview, after he bemoaned police brutality. Asserting that it was a journalist’s job to report the truth, the reporter asked: ‘Why are foreign media portraying Spain as a Francoist country, without separation of powers?
While the Schleswig-Holstein tribunal gave short shrift to allegations of ‘violent’ rebellion, it asked for more evidence to back up the claims of misappropriation of public funds. But as German magazine Der Spiegel revealed: ‘In their arrest warrant, the Spanish checked the box for corruption but there was no reference in the warrant text indicating that any corruption had occurred.’
Despite a lack of fundamental evidence to ground the charge, the German court nonetheless sought further particulars, leading Der Spiegel to conclude: ‘the Higher Regional Court ruling was still too merciful with its treatment of the Spanish arrest warrant.’
While the rebellion charge against Puigdemont is in tatters other Catalan leaders remain in Castilian jails awaiting trial. The former still faces a maximum eight years on the misappropriation charge, although this is seen as insufficient punishment for daring to declare independence.
But even this is at risk after a bombshell interview by Spain’s finance minister, Cristobal Montoro. El Mundo, the conservative paper he spoke to, didn’t even lead with the claim, preferring to headline on a nothingburger about Rajoy. But his comments were picked up by the Catalan press and the lawyers of the accused.
Montoro was only repeating what he and PM Rajoy had told Parliament in February: ‘I don’t know with what money they paid for the Chinese ballot boxes,’ he said. ‘But I know it wasn’t public money.’ At a stroke, the man pulling Spain’s purse strings had discredited the prosecutors and police investigators, who, while admitting that they have been ‘unable to determine’ how the referendum was paid for with public funds, claimed that up to €1.9m was misused for such ends. It appears the police have found invoices but have been unable to establish that they were actually paid as no monies were debited to accounts.
It’s hard not to overstate the anger at Montoro in the Madrid press. Terms such as ‘clumsy’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘unforgivable’ and an ‘own-goal’ were among those that made it to print. Some even thought he was covering his back and called for him to resign. The previously hawkish finance minister is now a marked man, seen as an enabler of putschists.
Is this a case of a politician being savaged for telling the truth? The police reports are full of holes. The interior minister has admitted that police quadrupled the number of injuries they received while beating would-be voters and, incredibly, the chief leading the investigation has been tweeting about it under the name Tacitus, disparaging the Catalan leaders and making accurate predictions about the legal process, a habit the justice minister Rafael Catala shares. So much for the separation of powers.
Lack of credibility
Nowhere is the lack of credibility in police claims more obvious than in the case of the ‘village’ of Sant Esteve de les Roures. A report on Catalan ‘violence’ on referendum day detailed this hamlet as being particularly vicious, with brutal attacks on police officers. Someone spotted that there is no such town and, in the only witty moment of this whole saga, created a Twitter profile claiming to be the town hall.
They then trolled the police for a month. But, amid the laughs, the fact that the police fabricated violence against them appears to have been forgotten.
Of the 315 acts of ‘violence’ in that dodgy dossier, almost 200 were nothing more than road blocks in which nobody was physically hurt. But in the current climate, where jeering the national anthem is considered ‘violence’, anything is talked up to support the extradition of Puigdemont & Co.
Another to bear the brunt of this hyperbolic definition of ‘violence’ is Tamara Carrasco, a 32-year-old Catalan nationalist activist, alleged to be a leader of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR). She took part in the blocking of a motorway and was charged with terrorism and rebellion. State prosecutors labelled her ‘a clear threat to the established constitutional order’, who carried out ‘acts of rebellion, aimed at normalising disobedience and confrontation with the state, bringing the Catalan sovereignty process to the streets with violent acts’. In a rare outbreak of common sense, the judge dismissed the charges and settled for disobedience. The State has appealed.
While it would be churlish to compare democratic Spain with Apartheid South Africa, it does bear an uncomfortable similarity in one respect: the use of exaggerated, even spurious, criminal charges to punish and put away for a long time political, to use Benenson’s phrase, non-conformists – and to send a warning to anyone who might think of emulating them. Nelson Mandela, remember, was charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government, and served 27 years in jail.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has five criteria for defining a political prisoner. Arguably, all of these apply to the Basque youths – though the Spanish government will point to the caveat that ‘those deprived of their personal liberty for terrorist crimes shall not be considered political prisoners’ – and Catalan politicians and activists, meet three of these, without the aggravation of terrorism.
Slap in the face
So, why the outlandish accusations? Well, as in Stalin’s Russia, it makes for a better show trial. But the real reason is that they prefer to lock away Puigdemont & Co for decades rather than eight. The same goes for the Basque youths.
The Spanish government has been caught flat-footed by the tenacious and tricky Catalan leadership. From being goaded into the PR disaster of sending in police to beat voters to the escape by some to other countries – which has required embarrassing extradition hearings that have humiliated Spain’s justice system – Madrid has looked ham-fisted and authoritarian.
The problem has been that the government has only one strategy: criminalisation. It worked against ETA terrorism but is proving ineffective against peaceful Catalan nationalism. Hence the constant need to portray Catalan nationalists as xenophobic putschists, which bears similarities with the Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine.
It’s likely that the Catalan nationalists expected such a response to their antics. They have always seemed to be one step ahead of Rajoy and his ministers. Even when it looked like they had suffered a setback in Puigdemont’s detention in Germany, the Schleswig-Holstein ruling ended up being a massive slap in the government’s face.
With no legal mechanism for achieving independence while the government in Madrid refuses to negotiate, the only hope Separatists cling to is that the EU will force Spain to the table. But so far other European powers has shown no inclination to do so, lamely claiming that it’s an ‘internal matter’. Naturally, Madrid rejects the idea out of hand. Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said that ‘mediation through a third party would be a victory for Puigdemont.’
Separatists must either tempt the government into further repression or ‘internationalise’ the problem. In other words, put Spain on trial. The Spanish government’s draconian response to a political impasse and amateurish attempts at securing extraditions have drawn the eyes of Europe to a justice system that appears to be at the beck and call of the government.