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At a demonstration near the Spanish parliament on April 18, a housing rights activist joked that the crowd should divide up with terrorists on one side and Nazis on the other. Everyone laughed, but there is a dark side to his sarcasm. Since March, local and national politicians have used every name in the book to delegitimize the Platform for Mortgage Victims, a grass-roots movement that has emerged as a powerful voice of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Spain’s housing crisis. The Platform’s founding member and spokesperson Ada Colau has been personally vilified by government representatives and the media, while participants in nonviolent street protests have been fined and subjected to criminal prosecution.

The campaign against the Platform represents a dangerous turn against freedom of speech and association in a country ravaged by economic crisis.

The Platform has been a thorn in the side of successive governments since 2009, when it began mobilizing people to defend themselves and others against home foreclosures and evictions as the housing bubble burst. In a country where more than 80 percent of people buy rather than rent their homes, the economic crisis and massive unemployment meant many were unable to keep up with mortgage payments. The resulting social crisis has been exacerbated by laws that leave homeowners responsible for the debt even after they lose their homes.

But the Popular Party government appears to have begun a full-scale effort to discredit the movement in reaction to the Platform’s recent campaign of targeted pressure on elected officials to press for deep reform of Spain’s mortgage regulations.  After parliament—where the Popular Party has an absolute majority—agreed to examine a “popular legislative initiative” drafted by the Platform, the group began organizing “escraches,” or unmaskings: protests in front of or near the homes and offices of Popular Party parliamentarians to press them to support the bill. The movement issued rules for members, including avoiding such actions when children are present, not bothering neighbors, and a prohibition on threatening politicians. 

The response has been virulent. “Trying to force a vote is pure Nazism,” the party’s secretary general said.  The mayor of Guadalajara called the escrache campaign “fascist or communist totalitarianism.” And a high-ranking government official in Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, suggested that Colau supported groups associated with the armed Basque separatist group ETA. That is no idle accusation in a country where passions run deep around the armed group, and many Basque associations have been convicted under Spain’s antiterrorism laws for tenuous links to ETA. Colau called the accusations “vulgar, ridiculous and unbelievable.” 

The Popular Party has gone beyond name-calling, with at least four elected officials filing complaints in court against participants in escraches near their homes. In the best-known case, a Madrid court has taken up the complaint filed by Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría against 27 people for “threats and coercion” following an escrache in front of her home in early April. Madrid authorities have already fined 18 people involved in that escrache for holding an unauthorized demonstration.

A right-wing trade union of civil servants called Manos Limpias (Clean Hands) has also filed a complaint against Colau for inciting threats and coercion against elected officials.

The Platform is unique in Europe. A truly grass-roots human rights movement, the Platform provides legal advice and support in negotiating with banks, but it also organizes protests to stop evictions and bank occupations. In doing so, it has fundamentally shifted the public debate and earned widespread credibility in Spain. Last year, the association collected over 1.4 million signatures (well over the half million required) in support of its draft law to, among other measures, allow for total debt forgiveness and ensure affordable housing for the dispossessed.

People may disagree with some of their tactics, and even with all of their goals. There is, admittedly, weariness among sectors of the Spanish population over the constant strife amid the deep economic crisis and widespread hardship.

Yet organized, nonviolent public pressure for change is a hallmark of a democratic society. The fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association, including to peaceful assembly, are enshrined in international law as well as the Spanish Constitution.  That’s why human rights law sets a high threshold for barring or punishing public demonstrations; unauthorized, annoying, even offensive, protests can be perfectly legitimate. And elected officials must be prepared to tolerate scrutiny and criticism.

Ultimately the courts will decide if any escrache participants broke the law (at least one judge in Cantabria has already thrown out a complaint, finding no crime was committed). But calling these actions “profoundly undemocratic,” as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy did, is an unjustified attack on rights defenders and distracts from the real issues.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by the mortgage crisis.  In 2012 alone, banks repossessed 32,490 primary residences, and began almost 66,000 foreclosure proceedings.   When these mortgages were obtained, irresponsible, if not predatory, lending practices were common and default interest rates were high (in some cases up to 18 percent). 

Immigrant communities appear to have been an easy target for questionable mortgages.  An estimated one-third of those affected by the mortgage crisis are immigrants, well out of proportion to their share of the population. Eduardo, a 44-year-old Ecuadoran, explained that representatives of a real estate intermediary would come regularly to the construction site where he worked to promote “deals” with banks for buying a home. “They knew at 10 o’clock we stopped working for 15 minutes, and they’d come and pester us,” he told me.

This was 2006, when the construction industry – where many immigrants were employed – was booming. In the following years, the industry would collapse, interest rates would soar, and the economy would go into a tailspin, throwing millions into unemployment  -- hitting a record high of 27.2 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

The numbers of people unable to keep up with mortgage payments has steadily increased. Unlike in other countries, handing over the keys to the house doesn’t mean a clean slate with the bank, and many remain saddled with significant debt if, as is almost always the case, the current value of the property doesn’t cover all of the loan. Those who try to fight eviction end up in protracted and costly legal battles under procedures that didn’t guarantee their rights. 

Casting aside the Platform’s legislative proposal, the government has just adopted its own reforms. These include capping the default interest rate and requiring banks to forgive 20 to 35 percent of the debt if people manage to pay back the remainder within 5 or 10 years. Judges will be allowed for the first time to suspend an eviction if based on unfair provisions in the mortgage (the European Court of Justice had ruled in March that previous procedures violated EU consumer regulations). Especially vulnerable families should benefit from a two-year moratorium on evictions—if their bank has signed on to a voluntary code of best practices—and the government is to work with the banking sector to convert repossessed homes into low-rent housing. 

The Platform, among others, contends that these reforms are too little, too late. While the provisions on suspending evictions and enabling debt forgiveness may provide some relief, they are unlikely to benefit the majority of those facing the loss of their homes. They will also do nothing to help those already forced out of their homes and still saddled with crippling debt. Nor is it clear that the reforms address the structural problems in a country with one of the lowest stocks of social housing in Europe and high rents in the private market.

Maria, a 45-year-old Peruvian woman who was evicted from her home in October 2012, is an active member of the Platform.  She said, “I don’t consider myself a terrorist, never! I am fighting to defend my human rights, I only want justice.” Rather than wasting everyone’s time trying discredit the Platform, the government should reflect on whether it is doing enough to ensure that everyone in Spain has access to adequate and affordable housing.

Judith Sunderland is a senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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