Spanish right to protest under threat, activists warn


WITH SOCIAL unrest building in Spain due to the deepening economic crisis, debate is raging over the right to protest, and critics warn that the government risks curbing basic constitutional rights as it tries to keep the peace.

This week the conservative administration’s delegate for Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, proposed modifying the law in order to limit street protests, on the grounds that they frequently bring traffic and businesses to a halt.

Some of her fellow members of the governing Partido Popular (PP) have voiced support for a review of the legislation. And on Wednesday, attorney general Eduardo Torres-Dulce advocated “suppressing all those who use those rights of freedom of speech to go further and undermine the foundations of the state of law”.

He also underlined the importance of the right to demonstrate, but his words were pounced upon by those who say an authoritarian backlash is under way.

José Manuel Gómez Benítez, a progressive member of Spain’s judicial oversight body, called the initiative “typical of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, not of a democratic state”.

“What seems to bother Cifuentes is the number, the frequency and the permanence of the protests,” he told a radio interviewer.

“But these take place because there are more and more people who don’t trust those they have voted into office.”

The interior ministry has said it has no plans to change the law, but not everyone is convinced.

Gaspar Llamazares of the Izquierda Unida leftist coalition said the administration was planning “to limit the right to gather”.

The government is already in the process of reforming the penal code to stiffen the punishment for those who use violence at demonstrations.

Individuals accused of organising violent events through the internet will face up to two years in prison under the change.

Prime minister Mariano Rajoy has faced a growing wave of street protests since taking power in December 2011, mainly because of the severe austerity programme he has implemented to meet deficit targets set by Brussels.

Usually these see hundreds, or thousands, of public sector workers, trade unionists, or students marching peacefully and noisily through the streets.

Ms Cifuentes said 2,200 protests had taken place in Madrid this year alone – a figure a police union has queried.

However, with unemployment at 25 per cent and rising, these demonstrations have taken a more fervent turn lately.

On September 25th, thousands of members of a movement calling itself “Occupy Congress” surrounded the parliament building, in a protest aimed not just at the government, but at the entire political class. Some of the protesters became violent and the police responded with baton charges and rubber bullets.

“The government seems to be trying to instil fear in those who take part in these protests,” said Raúl Camargo (33), a civil servant who was at the demonstration. “They’ve already cut back on loads of our economic rights. Now they’re cutting our constitutional rights.”

The nature of the protest and the police’s handling of it seemed to mark a new intensity in Spain’s unrest. The government insisted that “the silent majority” of people were not involved, but analysts said most Spaniards had already turned against the government, which last week unveiled new austerity measures and structural reforms.

“Since the summer, there’s been a notable deepening of the worry and outrage that people are feeling,” said Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid’s Autónoma University. “There’s a very negative mindset among Spaniards right now. If the bad news continues, the social unrest will get worse.”