Multiple arrests and hundreds injured during protests over Catalan sentence
On October 14th, 2019, 12 political and social leaders of the Catalan pro-independence movement, some of which spent almost 2 years in pre-trial detention, received the verdict from the Spanish Supreme Court: 9 of them were convicted to between 9 and 13 years in jail, found guilty of sedition and, in some cases, embezzlement of public funds. In total, 99 years and 6 months of prison for the organisation and the mobilization around the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. As it was expected, Catalan people, organized through the CDR, the new initiative Democratic Tsunami, the associations Òmnium Cultural and the ANC and other different entities, hit the streets to demonstrate against the sentence. Although these demonstrations were moved by the values of non-violent protest and civil disobedience, they faced direct police confrontation not only from Catalan police, “Mossos d’Esquadra”, but also from Spanish police specially sent to Catalonia a week before.
The first week of protests was the most conflictive, starting from a massive call at the Barcelona–El Prat Josep Tarradellas Airport and finishing on Friday with a peaceful demonstration attended by more than 500,000 people in Barcelona that was followed by the fifth night of rioting. Several roads and railways were blocked all around Catalonia by protestors at different times at different days and almost daily demonstrations were held in the main places of several cities, including some outside Catalonia such as Valencia and Madrid. Cities like Barcelona, Tarragona, Lleida and Girona witnessed episodes of real abuse and terror from riot police, which did not only target demonstrators and rioters but also journalists and by-standers. Only on Monday, first day, at least 115 people were injured by police charges, and on October 20th this number escalated to 579 ones confirmed. According to the Catalan Health Department, up to 4 youngsters lost sight of an eye due to the impact of rubber bullets or impacts from the charges.
The list of incidents and irregularities is long and cannot be fully covered here, most include riot police charging against people peacefully sitting on the floor or without prior notice, running anti-riots vehicles against demonstrations to make them move away and violently chasing through the streets demonstrators who were already leaving the scene.
On October 18th, Amnesty International criticized the excessive use of force and the misuse of anti-riot material in demonstrations which were “eminently pacific in nature”.
One of the organizers of these demonstrations was the network Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), which consists of committees that function on a local, regional and national level in Catalonia and have been active for over 2 years. Although its initial purpose was to facilitate the Catalan independence referendum, afterwards they started pushing for the establishment of the Catalan Republic calling for non-violent protests and civil disobedience. At a different level, Òmnium Cultural and the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (“Catalan National Assembly”) were directly related to the trial because their leaders in 2017 were the first of these Catalan leaders to be arrested and put in jail: Jordi Cuixart, president of Òmnium Cultural, and Jordi Sànchez, former president of the ANC, were both sentenced to 9 years in prison and a 9-year ban on holding public office for the crime of sedition.
On September 2019, Democratic Tsunami (“Tsunami Democràtic” in Catalan) appeared, a new Catalan protest initiative against the Catalan trial’s sentence. The initiative, up to now, has no public-known leaders and is based mainly in digital communication through channels such as Telegram and its own Android application. Democratic Tsunami has repeatedly stated that it encourages “non-violent mobilisation to defend basic rights” and made its first moved on October 14th, having previously announced that they would first act once the verdict was known. Their first action was supported by other organizations related to the pro-independence movement, such as the Sindicat d’Estudiants dels Països Catalans (“Students’ Union of the Catalan Countries”). From October 16th to 18th the Marxes per la Llibertat (“Marchs for Freedom” in Catalan) took place, starting from different Catalan towns and conveying in the city of Barcelona. On October 18th, there was also a general strike organized by some Catalan trade unions with the motto “Pels drets i les llibertats” (“For Rights and Freedoms” in Catalan).
Although the autonomous police force of Catalonia is the Police of the Generalitat of Catalonia – Mossos d’Esquadra, the Spanish National Police Corps and the paramilitary force charged with police duties, the Civil Guard, still have presence and duties in Catalonia. According to Spanish newspapers, there would be between 4000 and 5000 Spanish police officers permanently stablished in Catalonia. For the 2017 independence referendum, around 4000 more Spanish police officers were moved from all around Spain to support the operation aimed to prevent the voting from taking place. This time, a week before the sentence was publicly known, Spanish government sent between 1000 and 2000 riot police officers from both the National Police and the Civil Guard, affirming there was “full cooperation” between Spanish and Catalan police in their response to the demonstrations to take place.
The Spanish police is known in Catalonia for having committed tortures during Franco’s dictatorship in their current headquarters in Via Laietana, Barcelona city, having injured around 1000 people during the referendum, and having employed officers which seem to sympathize with the extreme right or even fascist groups. However, this time, the Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra were protagonists of most of the incidents and arrests taking place.
Since demonstrations are still taking place, organized by Democratic Tsunami, the CDR and other entities, it’s hard to tell how many individual cases will be part of this general one. Despite it was previously said that temporary displaced Spanish police would stay until past Christmas, on November 20th, the Spanish government announced that 80% of these officers were returning to their original posts; up to 1400 Spanish anti-riot police officers leaving Catalonia. It’s been hard for organizations to keep track of how many people have been arrested so far and what’s their status. Spanish police said on the Wednesday from that first week of protests that they arrested 30 people overnight across Catalonia for their roles in clashes with police. Speaking on the following Friday morning, Spain’s interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said another 16 people had been arrested overnight; 10 more people were arrested that same day.
Some references, up to October 21st, mentioned more than 600 injuries, including dozens of journalists injured, and 202 people arrested and up to 28 in jail. Some of them, most anonymous people, were and are being released one by one, since they are spread through different prisons and arrested for different reasons. On November 5th, at least 24 people were still in preventive detention. The legal consequences of all these arrests are yet to be known, especially taking into consideration that on October 18th it was revealed that Spain’s National Court is currently investigating Democratic Tsunami for alleged terrorism charges. Unlike Spain, France quickly set free the 18 people who were arrested by the National Gendarmerie in the roadblock which took place on November 11th in the frontier between Spain’s and France’s states. Some of the most known cases are example of how these arrests taking place in Catalonia were mainly unnecessary or disproportionate.
One of the most known cases was the one from “the orange sweater boy”, a 16-years-old boy who was peacefully sitting with hundreds of people in front of a police line on October 18th when the Spanish anti-riot police suddenly started running and charging against them. The boy was the slowest to get up and run so he was caught by the police, hit and pushed to the ground by some officers. On November 5th, it was revealed that this boy had filed a lawsuit against 8 officers for abuse, identifying them through media’s videos covering that scene. On the same day, a photographer from the Spanish newspaper El País, Albert García, was arrested by Spanish anti-riot officers when he was covering another police arrest. Lastly, on November 15th, it was known that Ayoub, a Moroccan youngster who resided in Lleida for around 3 years, was deported to Morocco due to his arrest on that same Friday when he was found involved in protests taking place in the city. Eric, another foreign citizen from the United States, also faced risk of deportation, being married with a Spanish woman and having a child together.
The list of rights’ violations and illegal procedures carried out by Spanish and Catalan police is probably long and diverse and cannot be fully covered here. However, it’s clear this police repression is a general threat to freedom of assembly.
Right to peaceful assembly
On October 18th, 2019, Amnesty International stated that they had observed “various cases of excessive use of force, including inappropriate and unjustified use of batons and other defensive equipment against people who posed no risk, including journalists and people who have already been subdued by security forces who even so continued to be beaten in the head and upper body”. In this statement, Marie Struthers also said “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”. Thus, the fact that riots and violent episodes took place cannot hide the violations of the right to peaceful assembly from the police during that first week of protests, at least.
Few days later, on October 21st, 2019, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe also stated, regarding these protests, that “it is important for the police to strictly abide by the principles of necessity and proportionality in the use of force, in order to safeguard the rights of those who demonstrate peacefully and defuse tensions at the same time” and urged “the Spanish authorities to reconsider the use of these weapons [rubber and foam bullets] in operations aimed at managing public demonstrations”.
Right to freedom of expression
On October 21st, 2019, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe also called “on the Spanish authorities to investigate all reported cases of attacks against journalists, notably during last week’s demonstrations”. As stated by the Commissioner, freedom of expression includes the right to receive and impart information and thus “measures should also be taken to guarantee the safety of all journalists during demonstrations”.