Lawsuit filed in bid to prove Spanish police violence on Catalan referendum day was crime against humanity

The plaintiffs accuse the Spanish authorities of carrying out a premeditated plan in order to intimidate the public

So far every legal step taken in response to the police charges on 1 October 2017 [the date of the referendum on independence] has attempted to hold to account those responsible for the incidents, working from the bottom up. Police brutality on that day left over one thousand injured and the images made news headlines the world over. In a major leap forward, now a group of jurists, associations and nine victims have filed a lawsuit against Spain’s political and police leadership at the time, based on the premise that the actions by the Spanish police that day might constitute a crime against humanity.

The lawsuit has been filed in Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional court and the defendants are former deputy minister for security José Antonio Nieto; Guardia Civil colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos, the officer who coordinated the police operation; the former heads of the Guardia Civil and the Spanish police in Catalonia, Ángel Gozalo and Sebastián Trapote; the former Spanish government representative to Catalonia, Enric Millo, and his Tarragona, Lleida and Girona deputies. In their lawsuit —pursued by law societies Atenes and Advocacia per la Democràcia, nine of the people injured and Afectats 1-O— the plaintiffs accuse the Spanish authorities and the top brass of the Spanish security forces of staging a “premeditated” police operation whose only purpose was to “intimidate” the general public and ensure they would not turn out to vote on the day of the referendum, according to lawyer Lluís Mestres, one of the people behind the complaint.

One of the aspects detailed in the lawsuit to justify the charge of crime against humanity is the fact that the UN’s High Commissioner urged the Spanish authorities to investigate the police violence on 1 October and hold those responsible to account, a request that remains unheeded. For this reason the plaintiffs will take the case up with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, if Spain’s Audiencia Nacional does not agree to see the case. For now the ICC’s prosecutor has been informed of the start of the legal proceedings in Madrid.

A “systematic attack”

The plaintiffs argue that the Spanish police operation on October 1 was “a programmed, systematic, all-out attack” against Catalonia’s civilian population. This premise allows them to speak of a crime against humanity, in accordance with Spain’s criminal code. Mestres insisted that “the State sought to frighten a segment of the population”. David Casellas, a lawyer who —like Mestres— represents some of the victims who reported their injuries to several courts in Catalonia, believes that the incidents “constitute an international offence”, regardless of the specific place where they occurred.

So far the highest-ranking court to have issued a ruling on the 2017 police operation is Barcelona’s Audiència, which found that the Spanish police had used “excessive, disproportionate force” and urged the judge who is probing the police charges in Barcelona to look beyond the individual actions of police officers and ascertain what high-ranking officials were responsible for the incidents.

As a matter of fact, two years after the vote we still do not know who issued the orders to baton-charge voters, what the intended purpose was and why the attacks petered out by noon. The lawsuit rests on the idea that the operation carried out by Spanish police and Guardia Civil was devised in advance so as to “intimidate” the general public. The choice of which polling stations to target was not random, “as shown by the fact that they picked the one where Speaker Carme Forcadell was due to vote, out a total of 41 polling places in Sabadell”, Mestres pointed out. Virginia Martínez, the chair of Afectats 1-O [an association of victims] insists that “we have a right to know who masterminded the plan and ordered the attack while we were exercising our right to demonstrate and freedom of expression”.

The lawyers believe it was a premeditated plan because the police acted “in the same manner, at the same time and with the same goal”, according to Mestres. Associació Atenes representative Jordi Ferrés stated that “the Spanish authorities deployed 12,000 officers with a secret plan B devised to bypass the injunction issued by Catalonia’s High Court, frightening the population the only way they could: by targeting 100 polling stations and hoping for a ripple effect”.

The lawsuit —filed on Tuesday October 1 with the Audiencia Nacional court and yet to be served— includes recordings of the actions by the Spanish police and Guardia Civil at sixty-three polling stations across Catalonia, as well as the “military-style” departure of the 12,000 officers who were deployed in Catalonia.

The risk

Whether Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional will agree to examine the complaint remains an unknown quantity. Some sources have hinted that the only risk, as far as the lawyers are concerned, is that by doing so, the Madrid court might choose to take over all the other cases currently being probed in Catalonia against over one hundred police officers who were involved in the police operation on October 1 2017. While this would bring their cases to a new level —so far the officers have been accused of aggravated assault, crimes against moral integrity, public disturbance and unlawful detention, among others— and they might stand accused of torture and other offences that carry a much greater penalty, there is a risk that all the separate cases might be dealt with as one and eventually dropped.

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