Spanish PM proposes end to protection from the lower courts for politicians

Doing away with the figure of ‘aforamiento’ in Spanish law would mean deputies and senators would be tried in ordinary tribunals for crimes unrelated to their official duties

Carlos E. Cué
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaking today in Madrid.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaking today in Madrid.Carlos Rosillo

The Socialist Party (PSOE) government is planning to reform the Constitution in order to end  aforamiento – the Spanish term for protection offered to politicians, judges and others from prosecution in the country’s lower courts.

Speaking at an event in Madrid, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced on Monday that the measure could come into force in just 60 days if there is consensus in parliament. “The challenge we have is for citizens to believe in politics once more,” he said to an audience of politicians and leading business figures. The reform, he continued, would send a “relevant, unequivocal sign of setting a good example of solidarity and empathy” to Spaniards.

The challenge we have is for citizens to believe in politics once more

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez

Sánchez came to power in June after winning a no-confidence vote against former Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The move came in the wake of a damning court ruling for the PP in a long-running corruption case known as Gürtel.

What is ‘aforamiento’?

Aforamiento is a legal situation whereby certain people, due to the office they hold or their personal situation, cannot be tried in ordinary courts. The concept is different to parliamentary immunity, which means that no deputy can be prosecuted for an action carried out as part of their role in government without the prior agreement of the corresponding chamber of parliament.

As such, being an aforado simply means a trial in a higher court. In the case of deputies and ministers in Congress, it's the Supreme Court.

Of the 250,000 aforados in Spain, more than 232,000 are members of the state or autonomous security forces, according to data supplied by the president of the Supreme Court and the CGPJ legal watchdog, Carlos Lesmes. Another five are members of the Spanish royal family, while the rest, 17,603, are members of state or regional institutions.

The reform proposed today by Prime Minister Sánchez would, for now, only affect deputies in Congress, senators and government ministers.

Today’s announcement came as Sánchez is trying to shake off the effects of a scandal last week that affected both him and his party, after his health minister, Carmen Montón, was forced to quit over irregularities and plagiarism related to a master’s degree at Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University (URJC). Sánchez’s own academic record also came under fire, with claims he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Under pressure from the media and opposition parties alike, he was eventually forced to make the text public. EL PAÍS found that it did not contain plagiarized text.

Doing away with aforamiento would have a direct effect on Pablo Casado, the current leader of the PP who is being investigated by the Supreme Court over alleged irregularities regarding his own master’s degree from the URJC. Were he not a deputy in Congress, the case would have been handled by a lower court.

According to government sources, the changes planned by the PSOE government would still offer protection from the lower courts to deputies for decisions made “in the execution of their office,” but they would lose protection  for personal matters, such as for example, if they are caught driving drunk, or if they hold undeclared bank accounts in tax havens.

Sánchez is not planning on altering the status of judges nor of the former king, Juan Carlos, who was granted aforamiento after a law was fast-tracked by the PP and the PSOE when he abdicated to make way for his son, King Felipe VI.

Any such reform would require an absolute majority in the Senate, and two-thirds of the votes in Congress

For now, aforamiento for regional deputies will also remain in place, since such protection is currently enshrined in statutes that set out the autonomous powers of Spain’s regions, and not in the national Constitution. However, such a modification will be considered in the case of cross-party consensus.

The move by Sánchez puts pressure on the PP, which will have to decide whether to sign up to the idea just as Casado’s master’s degree is being examined by the Supreme Court.

Any such reform would require an absolute majority in the Senate (currently controlled by the PP), and two-thirds of the votes in Congress. Given that the PSOE is in a minority government in the lower house, the PP’s support will be essential to get the change through parliament.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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