Amnesty International has demanded that Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart be released and their conviction for sedition overturned. On Tuesday the NGO published a report on the trial of the Catalan pro-independence leaders, three days after its Swiss chapter uploaded it to their website by mistake. As they had done on a number of occasions while the two Catalan activists were held on remand, AI demands their immediate release and calls the sentences imposed by Spain’s Supreme Court “disproportionate”. During the presentation of the report in Barcelona, AI’s director for Spain Esteban Beltrán stated that they intend to pursue several actions in order to secure the release of Cuixart and Sànchez, but he did not offer any specifics.
After watching the 52 sessions of the trial, AI has concluded that the verdict of the court —led by Justice Manuel Marchena— “threatens” the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as it might have “a chilling effect” that could prevent people from participating in peaceful protests out of fear. Furthermore, Amnesty International believes that the actions which led to the conviction of the two Catalan leaders are protected under the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and that their conviction for sedition could lead to “self-censorship” by a segment of the population. Daniel Joloy, AI’s Senior Policy Advisor, warned that “individuals may stop participating in peaceful demonstrations out of fear of prison sentences”. Amnesty International warns of a “possible chilling effect” as a result of the convictions for sedition. In its report AI goes on to state that “the vague definition of the crime of sedition, and its interpretation and application by the Supreme Court, creates insecurity and uncertainty regarding the limits of this serious crime”.
Civil disobedience and the right to peaceful assembly go hand in hand
In its report AI admits that the trial of the Catalan political leaders was not “unfair” on the whole, but points out that the court’s interpretation of the crime of sedition was “too broad and led to the criminalisation of legitimate demonstrations of protest”, Joloy said. Amnesty International argues that peaceful civil disobedience is permitted under international human rights law. Therefore, “the presentation of excessively severe accusations that are not proportionate to the nature of the criminal act committed during acts of civil disobedience leads to undue restrictions on the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
Joloy argued that “non-violent direct action, including acts of civil disobedience, are protected by the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly” and so a demonstration “does not lose its peaceful character because some illegality is committed or because of the use of violence by some protesters”. This is a reference to the protests outside Catalonia’s Finance Ministry HQ on September 20, 2017, as well as Sànchez and Cuixart’s calls to occupy polling stations during the referendum on October 1, “to prevent the police from acting”. Joloy complained about the court’s interpretation of the crime of sedition and emphasised that it is not a crime that can be found in the laws of every country across the world. Joloy believed it is “imperative” for the Spanish authorities to review the legal definition of sedition so that “it does not contravene human rights law”.
A request to Spain’s Public Prosecutor
Beltrán explained that the court’s interpretation of sedition also contravenes the principle of legality because the definition of the crime of sedition in Spanish law was unclear. In other words, the principle of legality requires any criminal behaviour to be clearly defined so that one may understand what constitutes lawful conduct and what does not, as well as understand the crimes they may face. Even though the international NGO admits that the rest of the convicted Catalan leaders may have committed “crimes that can be legitimately prosecuted by virtue of the public offices they held at the time”, their conviction for sedition also contravenes the principle of legality. AI’s coordinator in Catalonia, Adriana Ribas, pointed out that “everyone has a right to know if their actions might constitute a crime”.
The reports states that the actions for which Spain’s Supreme Court convicted the former Catalan government and parliamentary officials “are excluded from the protection of the right to freedom of assembly and expression or civil disobedience and, therefore, they can be legitimately punished in conformity with international human rights law and standards”, even though AI does not discuss the sort of penalty that they ought to receive. At any rate, the NGO is “concerned” about the conviction for sedition because it is based on a “vaguely defined and broadly interpreted” crime. For all that, AI calls on the representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office to “adopt a position that defends and upholds the principle of legality in accordance with international human rights standards” before Spain’s Constitutional Court. The NGO refers, in particular, to the eventual appeals that the defence teams of the convicted leaders might file.
An ambiguous definition of terrorism
When asked about the proceedings undertaken by Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional court against Tsunami Democràtic following the protest at Barcelona airport the day when the verdict was announced, the director of Amnesty International voiced his “concern” over the use of the crime of terrorism, which he said is “ambiguously defined and has been broadly interpreted for many years”. Beltrán mentioned that “this law was used in the Basque Country in the past” and he warned that it should be amended. He also criticised the legal changes to that crime made in 2015, which in his opinion “only made things worse”.