Spain: trial of Catalonian leaders imperils human rights

As the trial of twelve Catalan separatist leaders begins before the Spanish Supreme Court today in Madrid, the ICJ warns that their trial on broadly defined offences of rebellion and, possibly, sedition unduly restricts rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association.

“The very broad definition of the offence of rebellion being applied in this case risks unnecessary and disproportionate interference with rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly,” said Róisín Pillay, ICJ Europe and Central Asia regional Director.

The twelve political leaders – including high-ranking Catalan government officials – have been charged in connection with their part in the administration on 1 October 2017 of a referendum on Catalonian independence.

The referendum was conduced despite having been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court.

The voting process during the referendum was partially suppressed by the police, with credible reports of the use of unnecessary and disproportionate force in breach of Spain’s international law obligations.

“Interference with peaceful political expression and protest must be justified as strictly necessary and proportionate under international human rights law. Where peaceful protests or political actions, even if declared unlawul by the authorities, provoke an excessive response by the police, it is solely the police and other state authorities who should be held responsible for the violence,” Pillay said.

“It is crucial that the Supreme Court, in its consideration of these charges, takes full account of Spain’s obligations under international human rights law,” she added.

The ICJ is concerned that prosecutors, and the Supreme Court in admitting the indictment in the case, have ascribed an unduly broad meaning to the offence of “rebellion” under article 472 of the Criminal Code.

According to that article, the offence requires violent insurrection to subvert the constitutional order.

But the referendum organizers are not accused of using or advocating violence.

Rather, they are being tried on the basis that they should have foreseen the risk of intervention and the use of force by the police.

It is therefore alleged that the defendants were criminally responsible for the violence that ensued from their decision to carry on with the referendum, despite it being declared illegal.

Although the Supreme Court has held that the use of force by Spanish law enforcement authorities during the repression of the referendum of 1 October 2017 was “legitimate and, as such proportionate”, international observers have concluded that such use of force was excessive and disproportionate.

In accordance with international human rights law, the mere fact that the use of force is considered to be legal under national law, does not of itself mean that it can be considered to be necessary and proportionate.

The Supreme Court has further already accepted that, if the facts alleged by prosecutors are proven, they could amount to the offence of sedition, which is committed by those that that rise up publicly and in a tumultous way, by force or by unlawful means, to impede the implementation of laws or of authorities’ orders.

“Vague, broadly defined offences of sedition or rebellion risk violation of the principle of legality, as well as arbitrary and disproportionate interference with human rights,” said Róisín Pillay.

“In a highly sensitive and politicised case such as that of the Catalonian referendum, they would set a dangerous precedent for the targeting of peaceful independence movements and political dissent, not only in Spain but internationally,” she added.

Several of the accused have already been held in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods, further exacerbating the severity of the interference with rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and casting doubt on the proportionality of the response.


Róisín Pillay, Director, ICJ Europe Programme, t: +32 476 974263 ; e:  roisin.pillay(a)


The 12 people on trial in connection with the October 2017 referendum include Oriol Junqueras (photo), former Catalan vice-president; Carme Forcadell, former Catalan parliament speaker; eight former ministers in the Catalan government – Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Santi Vila, Meritxel Borràs, Dolors Bassa, Josep Rull, Carles Mundó -; Jordi Sànchez the former leader of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC); and Jordi Cuixart, former head of the independence organisation Òmnium Cultural.

The trial, which begins on 12 February in the Supreme Court in Madrid, is expected to last for several months.

Spain has obligations to protect freedom of expression, including political expression, under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and freedom of peaceful assembly and association under Article 11 ECHR and Article 21 and 22 ICCPR.

The Human Rights Committee in its General Comment on freedom of expression has affirmed that: “extreme care must be taken by States parties to ensure relating to national security, whether described as official secrets or sedition laws or otherwise, are crafted and applied in a manner that conforms to the strict requirements of paragraph 3 of article 19 ICCPR, which requires that restrictions on freedom of expression be provided for by law and must be necessary for a legitimate purpose, such as national security or public order .) Rights to participate in public life are protected under Article 25 ICCPR.



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