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Spain has been given poor ratings in reports by international organizations which have examined the state's respect for human and civil rights (with special attention to the repression of Catalan independence and the poor protection of minorities and women), as well as the level of independence of Spanish justice, its anti-corruption measures, racism and intolerance, the situation of people of African descent, migrants and refugees, the prevention of torture and the situation of prisoners, among other issues.

The assessments of different international bodies - mostly UN agencies and the Council of Europe - have been summarised in a new report by Rights International Spain (RIS), an independent non-governmental organization, formed by experts in international law and dedicated to the promotion and defence of civil rights and liberties. RIS is part of Liberties, a network of entities financed by progressive liberal tycoon George Soros, one of the bêtes noirs of European nationalist populism represented by Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán.

RIS gives special emphasis to the condemnations which Spain has received from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2018 there were eight such verdicts against the Spanish state, for violations of human rights that included the freedom of expression, the prohibition of torture, the right to a fair trial.

Other reports from international human rights experts quoted by RIS, many belonging to UN agencies and areas of the Council of Europe, express their concern about the repression of the independence movement in Catalonia, the risks to human rights and civil liberties (especially freedom of expression) contained in the reform of Spain's Public Safety Law, as well as the severity with which the offence of glorification of terrorism is treated. International observers are also concerned about extraditions from Spain to China of people who may thus be at risk of torture or liable for the death penalty.

On the other hand, there is some good news: the experts applaud the proposal to establish a truth commission on the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime, and also give a postive mention to the Supreme Court ruling that recognized the binding nature of communications by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Condemned eight times

Spanish justice has not scored well this year. In 2018, the ECHR condemned Spain eight times for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Spain, says the RIS report, "shows a certain reluctance on the effective application of some rights related to political dissidence." The court rulings against Spain relate to repeated violations of freedom of expression, the prohibition of torture, the right to a fair trial and an independent and impartial court, and respect for family and private life.

In addition, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression has already called on the Spanish authorities not to charge Catalan independence leaders with rebellion, a crime involving sentences of up to 30 years in prison. "Accusations for rebellion may entail the risk of dissuading people from discourses which are totally legitimate," according to the rapporteur. RIS notes that this expert was concerned that the charges of rebellion were based on events that did not involve or incite violence "as this could interfere with the rights of protest and political dissidence."

Justice could be greatly improved

Similarly, RIS states that in January this year the Council of Europe's anti-corruption body GRECO had already evaluated the level of Spain's compliance with recommendations issued, after previous evaluations, on preventing and combating corruption among parliamentarians, judges and prosecutors. GRECO observed that Spain had not applied or addressed any of the eleven recommendations contained in the last report, issued in 2014. "It should be stressed that the legal framework of the General Council of the Judiciary has not been reformed, nor have objective criteria and selection requirements been established for the appointment of the highest positions in the judiciary, which represents a threat to judicial independence," it says.

In addition, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner sent a letter to the presidents of Spain's parliamentary chambers, the Congress and the Senate, urging them to ensure that the modification of the Public Safety Law will eliminate all disproportionate interference in the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The commissioner expressed concern about the sweeping and imprecise wording of the law, which gives a large margin of interpretation to the police and, as a result, allows for arbitrary and disproportionate limitations on fundamental rights protected by the European Convention. This law has resulted in cases being brought on an unclear basis against journalists filming police officers as well as members of the public taking part in peaceful demonstrations, according to the commissioner.

In December, the Council of Europe once again pointed to Spain as a problematic example of the application of anti-terrorism legislation, due to the vague and inappropriately broad definitions of the crimes of glorification of terrorism and humiliation of victims, included in article 578 of the Criminal Code, which have led to disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of expression.

Migrants and minorities

Another chapter in the report covers the treatment of migrants and minorities. RIS recalls that the Council of Europe, via its Secretary General's Special Representative, had asked Spain to guarantee that all people arriving in the country, including those that cross border fences, should be subject to the principle of non-return and protection against collective expulsions, "so that there is a real possibility of obtaining access to a fair and effective asylum procedure".

This representative also reminded Spain that border control and security must be reconciled with the protection of the human rights of migrants and refugees.

The Council of Europe additionally indicated that the amendments introduced to Spaìn's Aliens Law do not provide clear guarantees against the immediate return and collective expulsion of migrants.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, in its fifth report on Spain, also makes some very specific complaints: the use of racial profiling by the police "is a continuing problem." He also worries about bad police practices in relation to crimes motivated by hate and the presence of hate speech against migrants and Roma people in political debate and in some media, the residential and educational segregation of the Roma community, and prejudices and discrimination against the LGBT community.

The UN Group of Experts on People of African Descent reached similar conclusions and called on Spain to pass a comprehensive law against racism and related intolerance, as well as taking measures to guarantee the representation of people of African descent and to end the collective expulsion of asylum seekers and migrants.

Economic and social rights

In a similar vein, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern about the lack of "justice" regarding economic, social and cultural rights in Spanish law. He recommended that Spain take measures to ensure a level of protection for these rights similar to that of civil and political rights at all levels of the judicial system.

Where Spain has improved is in its penitentiary system, according to the Council of Europe's report Prisons in Europe 2005-2015. In the fifteen year period covered by this report, Spain experienced a fall in prison density, in the proportion of foreigners in preventive prison, fewer deaths and suicides of inmates, as well as drops in the number of people jailed without conviction and an increase in the average expenditure per inmate and day

On the other hand, Spain has worse records than other countries in its neighbourhood on other indicators: percentage of foreign prisoners, number of inmates per prison officer, average times for which people are detained, average age of prisoners and percentage of women inmates.

Another UN committee, that of Rights of the Child recommended that Spain terminate the incommunicado holding of minors and provide qualified and independent legal assistance to minors who are legally processed, from the beginning to the end of the judicial procedure.


The Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture recommended that the mechanism for the prevention of torture in Spain, currently handled as a branch of the Spanish Ombudsman's office, should be given its own specific body. Other UN human rights experts urged Spain to suspend the extradition of Chinese and Taiwanese people to China, as they are at risk of being tortured or executed. Spain is a signatory of the international commitment to desist from expelling, returning or extraditing people to any country where there are reasons to believe that they may be subjected to torture or the death penalty.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) applauded the Supreme Court's ruling that recognized that the clauses of international treaties of which Spain is a signatory are part of its legislation and that the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee are binding.

Finally, the RIS report also notes that a group of UN rapporteurs praised the Spanish government's proposal to create a truth commission and its plans to investigate those who disappeared during the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. The experts urged the government to immediately take legislative, administrative and financial measures so that it takes an active role in the search for missing victims.

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