Strasbourg condemns Spain for having fined two young men who burned photos of the king in Girona

European Court of Human Rights requires Spain to pay them compensation

The European Court of Human Rights has smacked Spanish justice: Strasbourg has passed a guilty verdict against Spain for having fined the two Girona demonstrators who burned photos of the king in 2007. The Spanish courts had imposed a fine of 2,700 euros each on Enric Stern and Jaume Roura in lieu of prison for the crime of insults to the Crown, with the warning that if they didn't pay they would have to spend 15 months in jail. Among the judges who drafted the sentence is Luis López Guerra, Vice-president of Spain’s Constitutional Court from 1992 to 1995 and an elected PSOE representative in the Madrid Community in 2003. Also involved was Andorra’s Pere Pastor Vilanova.

Now Strasbourg has sentenced Spain to pay compensation to the plaintiffs in the same quantity as the fine they paid, plus an additional 9,000 euros to cover costs and fees. The ruling was passed unanimously because the court held that the burning of the photos cannot be considered an example of hate speech, and considers the criminal conviction to be disproportionate to the acts committed.

Three years ago, the Spanish Constitutional Court (TC) confirmed the sentence handed down by Spain’s National Court that condemned the two young men from Girona to pay fines of 2,700 euros each for having burned photos of the king in Girona's Plaça del Vi on September 13, 2007. The high court considered that the crime that they were found guilty of was not covered by freedom of speech because it was an "offensive" and "hateful" act. "The burning of the physical image indicates that they deserve exclusion and hate", said the TC ruling at the time.

In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear the appeal filed by Stern and Roura, and opened proceedings against Spain, as it believed that the two convicted youths' freedom of speech rights had been violated. After the TC ratified the National Court's ruling, the youths and their legal counsel took the case to Strasbourg, and this Tuesday the European Court ruled in their favor.

Blow to Spanish justice

The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Benet Salellas, took aim at Spanish justice after hearing of the ruling by the European court: "It is a very deep and very solid blow against the crime of insults to the Crown", he stated, after stressing that "it overturns the entire ruling by the TC, Spanish justice, and the policies of Spanish institutions".

In fact, Salellas believes that it can set a precedent for other open cases for insults to the Crown, justification of terrorism, or even the open cases related to the independence process. "Strasbourg has now made it clear that, in no case can criticism of the structure of a State be equated with a hate crime".

The lawyer also believes that the ruling from the human rights court is a "very clear defense" that acts such as those that took place in the Plaza del Vi in September of 2007, where photos of the king were burned, "can occur when a political criticism is made". Along the same lines, it is also a criticism of the Constitutional Court, which held in its 2015 ruling that the sentence was justified under incitement to violence, which the European court denies: “a symbolic performance as a political protest cannot be construed as an act of incitement to violence", stressed the lawyer, who also added that "Strasbourg has reaffirmed the non-violent nature of the pro-independence movement". He also said that "political criticism of Spanish State institutions can never be regaded as hate speech".

The two convicted youths, Enric Stern and Jaume Pujol, were not present during the press conference to comment on the European court's ruling, but Nuri Brugada acted as their spokeswoman to thank the public for all the support that they received and to invite everyone to a celebration this Saturday at 7 pm in Girona's Plaça de Sant Pere, where she recommended that "everyone bring a lighter", which suggests that photos of the king will be burned.

Indeed, Martí Majoral, from Alerta Solidària [Solidarity Alert, a Catalan group that supports political prisoners], called for people to receive the visits by the royal family to Catalonia "with burning of everything related to the king, and bonfires". "Now that the Falles are here, Mr. Pyrotechnic can get started!" said Majoral ironically, after dedicating the ruling to the political prisoners and singers prosecuted because of their song lyrics.

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