Back to top
29 September 2017

Spain: The work of human rights defenders must be respected amidst conflict over the referendum in Catalonia

Over the last few weeks, the political and legal conflict about the referendum on independence for Catalonia has resulted in an escalation of tensions leading to an unprecedented crisis. The Spanish government has taken a number of measures which put in question respect for freedom of expression, association and assembly and led to concerns being raised by the relevant UN human rights experts.

The work of human rights defenders in documenting and reporting on events of public interest and compliance with international human rights, upholding freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and defending the rights of others is crucial in periods of political or social strain, and their right to carry out their legitimate human rights activities must be at all times guaranteed.

The Catalan Government has organised the voting on the referendum for 1 October. The Spanish Constitutional Court and other Spanish institutions have ruled the referendum unconstitutional and illegal and are enforcing measures to prevent it from being held. Front Line defenders is concerned that some of those measures have led to harassment and constraints on the work of human rights defenders and journalists.

Human rights organisations have denounced the disproportionality of measures limiting freedom of expression and freedom of the press and journalist associations have received complaints from journalists who have been coerced or forced to identify themselves during the coverage of events of public interest, while editorial offices of various media have received judicial warnings from the Public Prosecutor and the Judicial Police. Participants of peaceful gatherings and demonstrations have been identified and held by police forces, in a clear attempt to restrict their right to peacefully demonstrate. In other parts of the country, forums for discussion or support of the voting in Catalonia have been cancelled by the authorities (in Madrid, Gijón, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Zaragoza). An unknown number of protestors and the leaders of two pro-independence organisations are being investigated under charges of sedition, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment. More than 4,000 police officers have been transferred to Catalonia to prevent the holding of the referendum, which the Catalan government has insisted will go ahead on Sunday. All of these measures represent forms of intimidation and harassment, with HRDs facing threats of severe repercussions for doing their legitimate work.

Front Line Defenders has previously reported on the trend of repression of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and the criminalisation of human rights defenders in Spain. In light of escalating tensions and uncertainty over the forthcoming referendum on 1 October, we call on the Spanish and Catalan authorities and police forces to guarantee the rights of peaceful assembly, freedom of information and freedom of expression and ensure that human rights defenders and civil society organisations can carry out their legitimate and peaceful activities, including monitoring and documenting the actions of the police and other security forces, without threats to their security and fear of reprisals.