Newspaper article International New York Times

Critics in Spain Deride 'Gag Law' ; Demonstrators Can Face Array of Big Fines under Public Safety Legislation

Newspaper article International New York Times

Critics in Spain Deride 'Gag Law' ; Demonstrators Can Face Array of Big Fines under Public Safety Legislation

Article excerpt

Demonstrators can face hefty fines under a law that forbids unauthorized gatherings around Parliament, making videos of the police and insulting officers.

Spain has been the epicenter of some of the largest protests in Europe against government austerity cuts, including a youth-led mobilization that called itself the "indignants," which took over Madrid's main square in May 2011 as a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As of Wednesday, though, such demonstrators could individually face fines of as much as 600,000 euros, or nearly $670,000, under a new law that has been strongly criticized by human rights activists and others as an antidemocratic response by the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to the social discontent set off by the financial crisis and near-record joblessness.

Spain's new public safety law -- called "the gag law" by its critics -- was approved in March by Parliament, where the Popular Party of Mr. Rajoy holds a majority. The party faces a stiff challenge in elections later this year. The law now comes into force, despite continued criticism from activists and opposition politicians.

Among other restrictions, the law forbids unauthorized gatherings around Parliament and other important buildings -- a direct response to some of the anti-austerity protests held in Madrid, where dozens of people were injured in September 2012 when protesters encircled the Congress building.

The law also forbids the kind of amateur video footage that has increasingly been used to expose police tactics in the United States, and which last month showed police beating demonstrators in the Basque region. In addition, the law sets hefty fines for a range of offenses: EUR 600 for insulting a police officer, as much as EUR 30,000 for spreading damaging photos of police officers and EUR 600,000 for taking part in an unauthorized protest outside Parliament and other sensitive locations.

In a report issued last year, Amnesty International criticized several aspects of the new law, including its clampdown on citizens' filming of the police. Such footage, Amnesty argued, can make "an important contribution to getting police agents to answer for their actions."

Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the new law presented "a direct threat to the rights to meet peacefully and freedom of speech in Spain."

She added, "It's essential for democracy that people have the right to go out on the street in nonviolent protests, to criticize and even insult the authorities, as well as denounce abuses when they occur."

On Tuesday, some protesters tried to test the limits of the new legislation. In Madrid, activists from Greenpeace climbed atop a construction crane and held a sign protesting the law, which specifically prohibits protesters from scaling buildings or monuments without permission. …

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