Opposition accuses Popular Party of running a “police state”

Spain’s ruling group pushes penal code reform and Citizen Safety Law through Congress

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández in Congress on Thursday.
Interior Minister Jorge Fernández in Congress on Thursday.Luis Sevillano

The Popular Party (PP) used its congressional majority to push controversial laws through Spain’s lower house on Thursday, prompting a chorus of accusations of authoritarianism from the entire opposition.

“Punitive populism,” “repressive law,” “police state,” “unprecedented cutback to civil liberties,” “authoritarian system,” “disproportionate escalation of punishment,” “exercise in despotism” and “terrifying oligarchy” were some of the descriptions of the PP’s new laws given by other parties.

Although Congress also gave the final green light to education and economic reforms, the brunt of the opposition’s ire was aimed at the new penal code, and the Citizen Safety and Anti-Terrorism laws.

A PP spokesman said the new Citizen Safety Law was “a step forward in social coexistence”

Several politicians have promised that if a different majority emerges out of this year’s general elections, they will immediately move to reform or repeal the Citizen Safety Law, the most controversial of them all.

First introduced in November 2013, the draft Citizen Safety Law was immediately described as a tailor-made tool for the PP to quell public displays of social unrest over the government’s handling of the economic crisis and rampant political corruption.

The original draft included heavy fines for street protestors who held up signs bearing slogans that were “harmful to Spain or the regions,” and granted private security guards the right to help the police break up demonstrations. Protesting in front of Congress, the Senate or regional assemblies was considered a serious offense.

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But the outcry from other political parties, civil society and even top legislative bodies forced the PP to review the bill and tone down its harsher elements to ensure they complied with the Spanish Constitution.

The bill received a first blessing in the lower house in December, then moved to the Senate and back to Congress for final approval this week.

In sharp contrast with the general mood, the PP’s spokesman for interior affairs, Conrado Escobar, described the new Citizen Safety Law as “a step forward in social coexistence, and a reinforcement to our democracy, because the only gag we are contemplating is for violent individuals, and this law is a gain for liberty.”

“Today is a good day for our rule of law and for our democracy,” added Justice Minister Rafael Catalá in a brief address following the debate.

No penal code support

In the 18 long months that the reform has been meandering through parliament, the ruling conservatives have failed to secure support of any kind for their penal code, which will go into effect on July 1. No consensus was reached on changing the system of punishments to include so-called “permanent reviewable prison,” which the opposition views as just another name for life imprisonment – which has not existed in Spain since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. The new penal code also changes some offenses into more minor crimes or administrative fines.

The Citizen Safety Law will also go into effect on July 1, except for the part that deals with the right for authorities to carry out on-the-spot deportations of illegal migrants caught jumping the fences in Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish exclaves along the northern coast of Africa.

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández said this new article would provide legal protection for the Civil Guard officers patrolling the borders, some of whom have become ensnared in court investigations for pushing migrants back into Moroccan territory.

The tension in the lower house only abated late in the session, when the house approved the new anti-terrorism legislation aimed at fighting jihadism in Spain. These new rules are the result of a cross-party agreement between the PP and the main opposition Socialists, and stipulate life imprisonment for terrorists who cause deaths as a result of their attacks.

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