Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There were some reports regarding prison and detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns. NGOs reported extreme overcrowding at some temporary migrant detention centers due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the periodic visit of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to the country in September, the press reported the CPT alleged during the visit mistreatment of an inmate in the Estremera prison in Madrid. On September 9, the inmate was reportedly placed in an isolation cell after he became unruly. When he was released, a medical examination found bruises on his buttocks, legs, soles of his feet, and ankles that had not been present when he was reviewed by a doctor before being admitted to the isolation cell. Prison leadership opened an internal investigation, and the Ministry of the Interior referred the incident to the court.
The UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) reported in October 2019 that, during its 2017 visit, it found that authorities in detention centers and other places of confinement frequently resorted to “measures of mechanical restraint and other coercive means.” Subsequent to that visit, the Ministry of the Interior updated its protocols, restricting the use of mechanical confinement to very limited parameters. In his 2019 report, the ombudsman reported that the prison administration officials informed the ombudsman that the use of mechanical restraints decreased, with 189 instances from January to April of 2019 compared with 322 instances during the same period in 2018. The use of mechanical restraints gained renewed attention after a video of the July 2019 death of 18-year-old Ilias Tahiri in a juvenile detention center in Almeria was made public in June. The video showed six prison officials strapping Moroccan-born Tahiri face down to a bed with his hands bound behind his back while two officials knelt on his back until he stopped breathing. In October a judge reopened the investigation into Tahiri’s death, looking at possible charges of reckless homicide, after his family appealed the judge’s January ruling that his death was an accident.
In its report on prison conditions in Catalonia released on February 4, the CPT reported complaints in all four prisons it visited of physical abuse of prisoners by prison officials, including slaps, punches, and blows with batons. The report alleged Catalan regional police officers subjected some detainees to an unauthorized restraint called a “sandwich” (entailing restraint of ankles and being placed between two plastic mattresses joined by strips of Velcro). The CPT expressed concerns about the practices of tying agitated prisoners to beds with straps and of forced medication of immobilized prisoners, noting they can cause serious injuries. The CPT also noted admission procedures failed to consider gender-specific needs, including detection of sexual abuse or other gender-based violence inflicted prior to admission.
Physical Conditions: The COVID-19 pandemic put considerable stress on the temporary internment centers for foreigners (CETIs) in Ceuta and Melilla, which housed irregular migrants pending their repatriation who crossed the border fence from Morocco. A CETI in Melilla was at nearly double its capacity as of September, prompting local authorities temporarily to house migrants at the city’s bullring alongside the homeless and Moroccan nationals unable to repatriate after Morocco closed its borders in March. (See section 2.f. for more information).
The CPT’s February report on its visit to Catalonia noted Catalan regional police detention centers lacked access to natural light and outdoor space for exercise and had inadequate artificial lighting, poor ventilation, and insufficient access to drinking water and personal hygiene products.
Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, including the Office of the Ombudsman, which is also the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, the CPT, and the SPT, in accordance with their standard operating procedures. In 2019 the ombudsman made 106 visits to places where individuals were deprived of their liberty to assess conditions of confinement. During the year the ombudsman conducted primarily virtual visits to prisons and detention centers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CPT made a scheduled periodic visit to the country on September 13 to 28. A report of its findings was not public at year’s end.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits, subject to judicial oversight, actions including public speeches and the publication of documents that the government interprets as celebrating or supporting terrorism. The law provides for imprisonment from one to four years for persons who provoke discrimination, hatred, or violence against groups or associations on the basis of ideology, religion or belief, family status, membership in an ethnic group, race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, illness, or disability.
On February 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that criticism, even severe, of politicians is protected speech and overturned the prison sentence of rapper Cesar Strawberry. In 2017 the Supreme Court sentenced Strawberry to a one-year imprisonment related to his social media posts criticizing politicians that the court ruled as hate speech.
The Law on the Protection of Citizen Security, known as the “gag law,” penalizes the downloading of illegal content, the use of unauthorized websites, violent protests, insulting a security officer, recording and disseminating images of police, and participating in unauthorized protests outside government buildings. The NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF) called the law a threat to press freedom, and the Professional Association of the Judiciary considered it contrary to freedom of speech and information. During the government-decreed state of alarm from March 14 through June 20, state security forces used this law to fine citizens who violated mandatory confinement orders. Amnesty International protested the use of the law to fine several persons who filmed an incident allegedly showing police harassing a mentally ill man and his mother, noting its longstanding concerns with the vague formulation of the law, which authorizes sanctions for “lack of respect of law enforcement officials.” The acting ombudsman declared in April his intention to investigate its application during the confinement. On November 19, the Constitutional Court, in deciding a case brought by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in 2015, upheld most of the law but ruled the provision against unauthorized recordings of members of security forces to be unconstitutional.
In a March 8 report, the UN special rapporteur for minority issues expressed concern that the October 2019 sentencing of 12 Catalan politicians and civil society activists interfered with the freedom of expression and nonviolent political dissent of the Catalan minority and could serve as a signal to prevent the political dissent of other minority groups. The national ombudsman rejected the categorization of the Catalan-speaking population as a minority.
On July 16, Amnesty International called on the government to repeal the criminalization of the glorification of terrorism, insults to the crown, and offending “religious feelings,” which it maintained unduly restricts freedom of expression.
On January 16, the Barcelona hate crimes prosecutor presented the first-ever legal complaint against an individual who falsely claimed in social media that unaccompanied foreign minors were linked to school violence. The prosecutor noted that online hate speech was often not prosecuted due to lack of information on the identities of the perpetrators.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views generally without restriction. The RSF and other press freedom organizations, however, indicated that the country’s restrictive press law and its enforcement impose censorship and self-censorship on journalists. In January the Universal Periodic Review of the country by the UN Human Rights Council noted that the Law on the Protection of Citizen Security was used against journalists who reported on police action during protests.
Journalist associations denounced the format of the government’s press conferences during the government-decreed state of alarm during the COVID-19 pandemic. The journalists claimed they had to send all questions in writing in advance to a government communications office, which then relayed them to the relevant ministry. They alleged that not all their questions were passed on and that they were unable to engage in direct dialogue with government officials. More than 400 journalists signed an open letter to the government under the title “The Freedom to Ask” and demanded increased access to question government officials. In April the government ended its requirement that questions be submitted in writing in advance.
Violence and Harassment: There were multiple reports of government officials’ verbally attacking certain media outlets and specific journalists. On March 1, President Pedro Sanchez accused “conservative” media of “stirring up society” every time conservatives lose an election. The same day, Second Vice President and Podemos party Secretary General Pablo Iglesias claimed press critical of the government had “offended the dignity of journalism.” Also in March, Iglesias threatened to send a journalist to prison for publishing compromising information about his party, especially regarding its financing. The comments were immediately condemned by the Press Association of Madrid.
In July, following comments by Iglesias against the press and a tweet by Podemos party congressional spokesperson Pablo Echenique attacking the professionalism of a television anchor, the Federation of Journalists Associations of Spain condemned Iglesias and Echenique for attempting to “coerce and intimidate” journalists to prevent them from freely exercising their profession. The RSF also called on the Podemos party leadership and all political parties to respect the freedom of the press.
The RSF blamed repeated attacks against media by the Vox party for provoking verbal and physical attacks on reporters during May countrywide protests against the government’s COVID-19 policies. In one instance several individuals assaulted a photographer covering a protest in Madrid, threw his camera to the ground, and tore his shirt. The RSF also voiced concerns about Vox’s online harassment of critical journalists and fact checkers and condemned Vox for banning some media outlets from attending its press conferences and election events.
In February the International Federation of Journalists warned in its 2019 annual report about the increase in cases of violence against the exercise of journalism in Catalonia, asserting that this community has become “dangerous territory” for journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government fully funds the public media conglomerate Spanish Radio Television (RTVE). The RTVE’s president is proposed by the government and confirmed by parliament. Journalists complained that the RTVE, under a caretaker president since 2018, operated with insufficient oversight and claimed that the caretaker president arbitrarily reassigned news directors and journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: Under the law slander is an offense punishable with six months’ to two years’ imprisonment or a fine. The law was not used by the government or individual public figures to restrict public discussion or retaliate against journalists or political opponents. The law does not criminalize blasphemy, but fines may be levied against those who offend the feelings of members of a religious belief or of those who do not have a religious belief.
National Security: Amnesty International and other organizations criticized the antiterrorism law as overly broad, but there were no known reports of the government using the law to suppress its critics.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: All national observers and those from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe considered the national elections in April and November 2019 to have been free and fair.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.
In a March 8 report, the UN special rapporteur for minority issues expressed concern that the October 2019 sentencing of 12 Catalan politicians and civil society activists interfered with the freedom of expression and nonviolent political dissent of the Catalan minority and could serve as a signal to prevent the political dissent of other minority groups. The Spanish Ombudsman rejected the categorization of the Catalan-speaking population as a minority.