Last Tuesday Spain’s Supreme Court took a step that would be unthinkable in a country with rule of law: it released a statement threatening the governors and the prison boards —made up of civil servants— who manage the facilities where the Catalan political prisoners are serving their sentence. Specifically, the court warned them that if they agreed to allow the separatist prisoners to sit out the current lockdown at home, they would run the risk of facing criminal charges for perversion of justice. In other words, the court issued a preemptive warning to a number of professional individuals who have taken no decisions thus far. Isn’t that itself a crime of coercion and a perversion of justice, as well as an utter embarrassment?
The public health emergency triggered by the coronavirus has caused disruption all over the world, leaving us unprecedented images and prompting governments to take decisions hitherto unheard of. In some countries, such as France and the USA, the authorities have decided to send prison inmates home to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in penitentiaries. The UN, too, has made a call to allow any inmates who do not pose an immediate threat to society to be confined at home. It is an exceptional measure, taken for the sake of public health, to deal with a totally exceptional crisis. The Supreme Court’s revengeful stance, with Justice Manuel Marchena at the helm, makes no sense at all. Can’t they understand that the situation has changed completely and public safety considerations must take precedence?
It should be pointed out that Catalonia’s Justice Ministry has determined that it is up to each separate prison board to decide whether —given the current global emergency— an exception should be made in order to authorise the temporary release of grade 2 inmates who benefit from Article 100.2 of the Prison Service’s rules and regulation. This is the same article that allows them to have a job or do voluntary work off-site during the day. If they are fit to work outside the prison facility, why can’t they spend the mandatory lockdown period at home? The most logical choice under the circumstances would be to massively bump low-risk grade 2 inmates up to grade 3. However, such a move would ultimately need to be endorsed by the Supreme Court and now we know that it wouldn’t hesitate to disallow it. Therefore, that particular avenue is closed off beforehand.
As the virus spreads and the death toll rises in Spain, the Supreme Court’s concern over nine individual inmates defies all logic. As a matter of fact, on Tuesday they leaked that the court would take “immediate action”, should the nine Catalan prisoners be allowed to go home. That sort of reaction actually proves that they are not regarded as ordinary prisoners and that the court is well aware of the political implications underlying the whole judicial process. Spain’s Supreme Court is effectively treating them as political prisoners.
We can only hope that Catalonia’s prison authorities will be allowed to make their own decisions, whatever those might be, free from the Supreme Court’s threats and following objective criteria that take into consideration the current state of affairs. Furthermore, the Catalan government ought to consider whether the Supreme Court’s communiqué itself might not be something that a court of law would like to hear about.