Sometimes the week’s news from Spain, Catalonia (and Geneva) needs little or no further commentary. It’s been one of those weeks …
A French documentary film, ‘Catalonia: Spain on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, is to be screened today, Sunday 18th March, at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva. It is a very apt end to the week, especially as the screening is to be followed by a discussion with Carles Puigdemont. Tickets for his talk sold out as soon as it was announced – with media ‘from half of Europe’ asking to attend. I think Spain’s Public Prosecutor’s Office was also touting for a ticket via Interpol – but not to listen to the talk. They probably wanted to sneak in and smuggle Puigdemont back to Madrid, but the Federal Office of Justice in Switzerland has made it very clear that it doesn’t carry out extraditions for political reasons. Not many countries do, actually. It’s called ‘normality’. It’s why Spain has withdrawn the European Arrest Warrant for Puigdemont, and not issued one for CUP politician Anna Gabriel (who’s also in Switzerland), nor for Clara Ponsati, the former Catalan education minister, who was in self-imposed exile in Brussels but has now moved to Scotland to teach at St.Andrew’s University. On the way, she took part in a demonstration in London (with no problem at all) against Spain’s political prisoners, and was also interviewed by BBC Scotland and other UK media. I imagine a request to extradite her for helping to organise a referendum in Catalonia would be laughed out of a court in Scotland. Literally.
The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) has confirmed that Puigdemont’s visit to Switzerland is a ‘private invitation’. He will remain there at least until Wednesday, when he’s also giving a talk at the Graduate Institute on ‘separatism, self-determination and the future of Europe’. On Tuesday 20th March, there are also side events (under the banner of ‘Human Rights Regression in Spain’) at the 37th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council. The events include ‘The Right to Self-Determination in the 21st Century’ and ‘Breaches of Fundamental Rights in the EU: The Catalan Case’. The wife of imprisoned Jordi Cuixart, Txell Bonet, and another exiled minister, Meritxell Serret, will also attend. The internationalisation of the Catalan issue is growing stronger by the week.
Today’s screening in Geneva is also apt because it hasn’t been a particularly positive week on all matters related to ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of expression’ in Spain. On Tuesday – ironically the same day that the City Council of Barcelona was ordered to replace a bust of king Juan Carlos I from its plenary hall (after it had been removed in July 2015) – the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based in Strasbourg, unanimously ruled that Spain had wrongfully condemned two Catalans for burning photos of the king in 2007. Enric Stern and Jaume Roura had been found guilty of ‘insulting the monarchy’ 11 years ago. They had initially been sentenced to 15 months in prison, but it was later reduced to a fine. The ECHR ruled that burning the photos was ‘justifiable political criticism’, freedom of expression, and that it could not be ‘construed as incitement to hatred or violence’. The court ordered Spain to reimburse the €2700 fine imposed, as well as €9000 in legal costs. Some people went out to celebrate by burning photos of the king.
On that same day, Tuesday, a report was published by Amnesty International, entitled, ‘Tweet … if you dare: how counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain’. It criticised Spain for a ‘sustained attack on freedom of speech’, that the country’s law against glorification of terrorism was ‘draconian’ – and that people shouldn’t face jail simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking. The report concluded that the toughening of the law in 2015 had led to ‘increasing self-censorship and a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression in Spain’. Amnesty’s International Media Manager, Stefan Simanowitz, tweeted, ‘Question: Which of these could land you in prison in Spain … tweeting a joke, posting a YouTube video, rapping, or holding a puppet show? Answer: all of them.’
If this isn’t enough, a couple of days ago the ‘miracle’ of all news broke, thanks to an ‘association of Christian attorneys’. Spanish actor, Willy Toledo, who’d posted something about God and the Virgin Mary on Facebook in July last year, is to be investigated by a Spanish judge for insulting them. Yes, you read that correctly. He is to be investigated for insulting God and the Virgin Mary. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook seemed okay with the post last year, apparently … but not God and the Virgin Mary. As you can imagine, I have a couple of questions about this: will God and the Virgin Mary be called to testify? How do they know that God and the Virgin Mary are insulted? Someone mentioned that in 2014, Spain’s former interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, awarded a medal to the Virgin Mary … and so he might know.
In other news, Joaquim Forn, the former Catalan interior minister who has been imprisoned without trial, has now been diagnosed with ‘pulmonary tuberculosis’ at Estremera jail. Not only has he been imprisoned without trial, therefore, but he’s clearly been imprisoned without heating and medicine, too – and they’re refusing to release him for treatment. It is a disgrace.
This week, too, in a country where the Francisco Franco Foundation freely exists (‘don’t mention Franco’) and the ex-assistant of the king of Spain has recently been named its president, the Catalan grassroots cultural and civic organisation, Omnium Cultural – an NGO with more than 50 years of history and over 100,000 members – had its headquarters shut down and searched by the Guardia Civil for the second time in six weeks. Seven employees were initially held. A Spanish judge ordered that if Omnium summoned people to demonstrate around its HQ whilst the Guardia Civil was raiding it, then they would be committing a crime of ‘sedition’. About 9 months ago, I didn’t even know what ‘sedition’ was. Then I learnt that it was ‘inciting people to rebel [and I presume ‘rebellion’ means with violence] against the authority of a state or monarch’. I didn’t realise it also included peaceful protest and demonstrations, though, but in Spain it seems to.
At the time of writing, it is still precisely unclear why a Senegalese immigrant and street vendor, Mmame Mbage, died in the Lavapiés district of Madrid the other night. There are some reports that he collapsed and died from a heart attack, before any police aggression. What is clear, however, is that there are some disturbing photographs and videos of police action in the area.
Spain’s National Police decided that an incident where a black African actor, Marius Makon, who suffered bleeding above the eye after being hit in the head with a beer bottle by a woman who’d said, ‘I don’t want to see blacks in here’ in a bar in the Móstoles area of Madrid … would not be investigated as a racist crime.
Yesterday, mass demonstrations by pensioners took place across Spain and against the Spanish government, all demanding dignified pensions and to be re-evaluated in line with the cost of living. Meanwhile, the king of Spain was photographed skiing with his family.
What else happened? Oh, yeah. Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has started a video blog. It is probably what he meant last week when he said he’s going to do everything possible and even the impossible, if the impossible is also possible.