After the reasonably justified gnashing of teeth caused by the Strasbourg Court's ruling, we need to calm down and remember a few facts that may help us get over it. The so-called "Parot doctrine" has not really been quashed, and is still as reasonable as ever. It is a logical response to the problem of keeping prison sentences proportionate to the crime they are punishing.
Sentencing a killer to 1,000 years in prison, as has been the outcome of many trials against ETA terrorists, makes no sense if legislation caps the maximum time spent in jail at 30 years (now 40 years, since the law was reformed); not to mention the fact that those sentences can be reduced on the grounds of good behavior, or the participation of convicts in work programs. Under these conditions, multiple murderers can be out after periods of just 18 years.
We know, of course, that no one will spend 1,000 years in jail. The aim of these sentences is to prevent early release. The Parot doctrine effectively made parole discretional, and was aimed, reasonably enough, at plugging a loophole that permitted these situations.
The European court has given priority to the elimination of any suspicion of retroactivity
Of course, everyone has a right to rehabilitation. But the first step in rehabilitation is to accept responsibility for your crime. The rest comes later. For example, if someone who has killed a dozen people believes that they are a political prisoner, it is because they are not yet on the road to rehabilitation - both in the case of the prisoner, and the people who abet and encourage them.
The Strasbourg Court has struck down the possibility of applying this measure retroactively. The idea that prison sentences cannot be lengthened retroactively is a fundamental judicial concept. But in the case of the Parot doctrine it is not a question of actually making the sentence any longer, but rather of calculating the way in which it can be shortened. This is not a mere quibble, but a matter that should be open to juridical discussion.
The European court has given priority to the elimination of any suspicion of retroactivity, while admitting that this is at the expense of a proportional sentence. But it might equally have decided the other way. Judgments of this kind are what courts are for. Otherwise it would be enough to plug the data into a computer, and wait for it to spit out its invariable answer.
And now that the decision has come, it has to be obeyed. Not because Spain has violated anyone's human rights, but because it has signed treaties in which it accepted the authority of this court. The courts are referees, and even if they are wrong, they must be obeyed. Otherwise the game is over. They have called a penalty, and though it may seem unfair, we have to abide by it.
After all, we can be glad that Spain is not being punished for having atrocious laws on its books. On the contrary, it has declined to add the harsher legislation that exists elsewhere. Together with Portugal, Spain is practically the only country in the European Union that does not have life imprisonment. Many of us are glad of this and want the situation to remain as such. But in cases such as those subject to the Parot doctrine, we can understand its convenience for a judge. When someone in England or France has killed dozens of policemen, we don't waste time wondering whether they will be released from prison after 30 years, or 40, or ever.
Obviously Spain - which is the most recent country in Europe to suffer a long, bloody campaign of terrorism, which seriously threatened the stability of democracy - might reasonably expect more understanding on the part of countries who, for decades, looked the other way as our dictatorship dragged on and on, and who are now showing more tolerance to the criminals than their victims.
Francisco Savater is a writer.