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A worrying drift

The government wants to criminalize a wide range of behavior concerning basic liberties

The government has eliminated a few of the more notorious excesses contained in the first draft of the Citizens Safety Law. However, it has maintained the general lines of the reform, which shifts the power to impose sanctions on a wide range of actions, some of them classed as mere misdemeanors in the penal code, to the executive branch. What Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz is presenting as an attempt at decriminalization means, in practice, a reduction in the judiciary’s capacity to determine what is, or is not, open to the imposition of sanctions.

Those who complain of an excess of protests in the streets blame it on insufficient existing legislation or the lenience of the courts, which are said to be too soft on offenders, or too slow. Legislation can always be improved, within constitutional limits, and it is obvious that governmental response is more rapid and expeditious than the judicial kind. But government is a political authority, which is thus claiming the right to keep a list of offenders. Who controls this list, who has access to it, and what use will be made of the data stored in it? If the new legal scheme enters into effect, citizens can only appeal the decisions of the administration after the fact, and by means of a procedure that will be much more costly than the criminal kind.

This reinforcement of governmental power needs to be assessed in terms of what types of behavior are to be open to sanctions. These include disturbances at public gatherings; actions against those who attempt to prevent evictions, or who commit offenses against the symbols of Spain, or of its regions. What is obvious here is the intention to curtail protests of a political and social character, strangely mixed with new sanctions imposed on soliciting for prostitution near schools and on the edges of highways — a very partial aspect of the problem posed by the supply and demand of the sex trade.

Some of the “reductions” of sanctions already accepted, such as those concerning insults to the police or the publication of images of them in action, have been criticized by the police unions. Many other measures of the proposed law, however, are directed at those citizens for whom the observance of rights and due process is a question of principle. In any case, the political cost and the widespread upset caused by any unilateral attempt to legislate in such matters was already made clear some years ago in the case of the controversial Corcuera Law (legislation allowing tougher police action, so called after the Socialist interior minister who sponsored it), and the experience of this law in the 1990s ought to have suggested to the government that it proceed in a more reflexive and consensual manner.

Political intervention in this terrain can be justified only in terms of curbing violence. The few outcroppings of violence in recent protests are not so serious as to legitimate such an increase in government power. We are looking at a preventive strengthening of the arsenal of penalties; but to dissuade the peaceful use of the rights of meeting and demonstration is unjustifiable under the Constitution as we now have it.

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