A young Spanish politician who became a symbol of change when he joined parliament in 2016 will fight a decision revoking his seat after he was found guilty of assaulting a police officer.
The dreadlocked Alberto Rodríguez made headlines in January 2016 when he took up his seat as a representative of the leftist Podemos party, shortly after elections that signaled an end to the two-party system in Spain.
But last Friday, house speaker Meritxell Batet decided to revoke Rodríguez’s lawmaker status because of a Supreme Court ruling that found him guilty of kicking a police officer during a 2014 public protest in La Laguna, on the Canary Island of Tenerife.
Batet’s announcement triggered a new crisis between Spain’s coalition partners, the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos. It also evidenced a clash between the legislative and judicial powers, with the court stating that parliamentary officials, who had initially said Rodríguez could keep his seat despite the ruling, were “reinterpreting” the judge’s decision.
Leaders of Unidas Podemos, the junior member in Spain’s minority government and itself made up of Podemos and other leftist groups, quickly suggested the possibility of a criminal complaint against the house speaker who, in their view, had deliberately made an unlawful decision. But with tension between both coalition partners quickly escalating – Batet is a member of the PSOE – Unidas Podemos officials soon noted that the complaint would not be filed by the party itself, but rather by Rodríguez on a personal basis.
Over the weekend, it emerged that Rodríguez was quitting Podemos and would not be filing a criminal complaint against Batet after all. Instead, he will resort to Spain’s Constitutional Court and take his case all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights. This change in strategy comes after Rodríguez switched lawyers and hired the same firm that represents Carles Puigdemont, the ex-premier of Catalonia who fled to Belgium after leading a failed unilateral secession attempt in 2017. Rodríguez, who until now had been represented by a Podemos lawyer, said he now needs “an independent team with expertise in the European environment.”
In a statement, the representative for the Canary Islands described the decision to strip him of MP status as “abusive” and a breach of his rights. He accused Meritxell Batet of awarding herself “powers that she lacks” and of “modifying the [court] sentence.” He also said that Batet’s actions “violate the most basic principles of popular sovereignty and democracy in the Spanish state.”
A day earlier, Rodríguez had also announced that he was quitting Podemos, where he once served as organization secretary. In a statement, he said that “one has to know when to end a cycle.” He added that “the PSOE has buckled under pressure from the judiciary” and that he was convicted by the Supreme Court “without evidence.”
Origins of the dispute
Rodríguez was found guilty of kicking a police officer at a protest in 2014 and sentenced to 45 days in prison, although this was changed to a €540 fine, which he has paid. The sentence also included an inhabilitación de sufragio pasivo – a ban on the right to passive suffrage, meaning the right to run in an election. And this is where the legal disputes begin.
The legal team that advises Spanish parliament feels the sentence means Rodríguez cannot run for office, but that he cannot be stripped of the seat that he already holds. The Supreme Court believes that even though Rodríguez paid the fine, the other part of the sentence has yet to be served and involves revoking his parliamentary credentials. Last week it asked parliament when it would enforce the ruling, in a move seen as putting pressure on the legislative.
Although there is no case law to fall back on, some legal sources said it might be construed that Rodríguez is ineligible to be a member of parliament because he does not meet Spain’s nomination rules due to his prison conviction. Others openly question whether the suspension of the right to passive suffrage can be applied retroactively.
“The legal literature makes it clear that being stripped of the right to passive suffrage does not entail losing the position you hold at that moment,” said Jacobo Dopico, a professor of criminal law at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “Being deprived of the right to be elected to a public position for the duration of the sentence does not extend to being deprived of positions obtained earlier, even those that were obtained through elections,” agreed law professor Josep Maria Tamarit.
The legal team that advises Congress took the same view in a report issued on Monday of last week, saying that the convicted individual would be ineligible to run for office for the duration of the sentence – in this case, 45 days – but would not lose the right to hold existing positions.
The Socialist Party has buckled under pressure from the judiciaryAlberto Rodríguez, former lawmaker
But Supreme Court judge Manuel Marchena, who heads the court’s criminal division, rejected this view and just hours later sent the house speaker a document reminding her that the sentence against Rodríguez had yet to be enforced.
Borja Mapelli, a professor of criminal law at Seville University, agrees with the Supreme Court. “If he is banned from being elected to public office, it follows that he must lose his existing public position,” he said. “You have lost the trust expected of people who hold public office, and therefore you must give it up. A reasonable interpretation of the law is that these additional penalties that come with a prison sentence make the latter incompatible with holding public office.”
But this kind of retrospective ineligibility is “an unacceptable trap in a state with the rule of law,” said José Antonio Martín Pallaín, a former Supreme Court judge. The Spanish Constitution, he said, guarantees that sanctions restricting individual rights cannot be applied retroactively.
Martín Pallaín was very critical of this theory of retroactive ineligibility, which he said has been developed in recent years “in a worrisome way” and specifically tailored to Catalan separatist politicians, some of whom have been barred from their posts. “This is an unfavorable judicial interpretation that is impossible to uphold with our Constitution in our hands.”