Catalan independence protests turn violent

Background

As reported previously on the Monitor, on 28th April 2019, Spain held its third general election in four years. The governing Socialist party won the election but fell short of a majority. This led to a political stalemate. Following this, on 10th November 2019 the party yet again won the fourth general election in as many years. But it failed to secure a majority and the results suggested that it would once again take months to assemble a government. However, this time around the ruling Socialist Party managed to come to a preliminary agreement for a coalition government with the left-wing Unidas Podemos in less than 48 hours after the vote. This is positive news, given the prolonged stalemate that the country has repeatedly suffered from in recent years which has not only been bad for the economy, but also for human rights. More specifically, issues of vital importance related to human rights protection were constantly being shelved. Rights International Spain recently published a report which mapped the gaps in the protection of civil and political rights in Spain. The report argues, inter alia, that the gag laws should be reformed with a view to protect and duly guarantee the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly. In addition, it called on decision-makers to observe their obligation to protect human rights defenders and to refrain from restricting the work of civil society organisations.

Peaceful Assembly

Protesters clash with police in Catalan independence demonstrations

In recent months, Spain has seen several mass demonstrations for and against Catalan independence.

  • While many peaceful demonstrations took place, police and pro-independence demonstrators clashed from 14th to 19th October 2019. Protests erupted as a reaction to Spain’s top court sentencing nine Catalan separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition in connection with the breakaway attempt of October 2017. Catalonia faced nightly street violence and disruption of traffic. There were clashes at the airport between police and pro-independence supporters. In Barcelona, around 300 protesters gathered outside the headquarters of Òmnium Cultural, a pro-independence organisation headed by Jordi Cuixart, who was sentenced to nine years in prison and given a nine-year ban on holding public office for his role in the breakaway attempt.
  • Following the first week of protests after the court ruling, on 26th October 2019, 350,000 people marched for Catalan independence and against the imprisonment of nine separatist leaders. After the demonstration ended, a group of several thousand separatists surrounded the National Police headquarters. The crowd, mostly made up of radical youth, started throwing bottles, balls and rubber bullets at police officers, which led to the police dispersing them. The protest was called by the radical group Committees to Defend the Republic (CDR).
  • The next day, on 27th October 2019, close to 100,000 people (according to the police, 80,0000) marched in Barcelona in favour of Spanish unity, carrying Spanish and Catalan flags. The rally was called by Catalan Civil Society (SCC) association, a movement which seeks to promote cohesion among Catalans and between Catalans and the rest of Spain. 
  • According to media reports, officials state that 367 civilians and 289 police officers were injured in the clashes.
  • Many journalists have reported being harassed or attacked by police during the protests, even though they wore bracelets which identified them as press. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Spanish authorities to ensure the safety of reporters working on protests.

“It is of vital importance that local authorities ensure the safety of journalists covering demonstrations in Catalonia so they can report freely….Both the police and protesters should refrain from targeting or obstructing the work of the press, and authorities must investigate all reported attacks against journalists”- CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna in New York.

Local press freedom watchdog MediaCat reported 58 incidents of journalists being attacked during the demonstrations, including at least a dozen incidents at the hands of police.

While the regional premier, Quim Torra has asked the national government to negotiate a new referendum, the acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has rejected this proposal. "The government of Spain reiterates that the problem of Catalonia is not independence, which will not occur because it is not legal and nor does the majority of Catalans want it, but rather [they want] coexistence," Sanchez said.

Police conduct under the spotlight

The rightfulness of the police’s conduct during the demonstrations is a highly debated issue. During the period of 14th – 19th October 2019, police resorted to the use of rubber bullets, smoke grenades and tear gas to try to disperse the radical protestors, but these measures proved insufficient. Following this, they resorted to the use of a water cannon to disperse protestors. The regional Prime Minister was unwilling to condemn radical protesters for days and instructed the head of the regional interior department to investigate the Catalan police force.

Unions have called his statements “indecent.” The regional law-enforcement agency expressed that it feels “defenseless” after the government failed to press charges against individuals accused of attacking and injuring officers.

On 18th October 2019, in a report titled “SPAIN: Authorities must de-escalate tensions and guarantee the right to public assembly”, Amnesty International states:

“The mobilisations have been exceptionally peaceful, and though there have been certain acts of violence that have put certain people at risk, security forces must act with moderation. Authorities must do everything possible not to contribute to the escalation of tensions in the streets and must respond proportionally at all times to possible outbreaks of violence”- said Esteban Beltrán, Director of Amnesty International Spain. 

In addition, Amnesty denounced various cases of excessive use of force, including inappropriate and unjustified use of batons against people who posed no risk and the use of highly dangerous foam bullets in partially enclosed spaces. They have also denounced the use of the so-called “carousel,” which entails advancing police vans toward a crowd to disperse it.

“In these situations, with so many people demonstrating in the street, the priority of the authorities must be to reduce tensions and allow any person who wishes to peacefully express his or her beliefs to do so safely”- Marie Struthers, director of Amnesty International Europe.

According to major press outlets, polls show 44% of the region's population in favour of independence and 48.3% against it.

Climate activists demonstrate in Madrid

Thousands of climate activists gathered in Madrid from 6 December 2019 as the city hosted the UN Climate Summit (COP25). The gathering organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) performed a civil disco-bedience dance, which blocked the central shopping street, Gran Via. In contrast to the mood of this protest, on 14th December 2019 another demonstration was held where XR activists dumped horse manure outside the venue of the summit to convey a message to leaders - ‘the horse**** stops here’. In addition, a group of twelve stood in melting blocks of ice with a rope around their necks – to emphasise that there are twelve months remaining until the next summit, during which the Paris Climate agreement enters a crucial implementation time period.