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(Milan) – The Spanish Congress should amend a deeply flawed public security bill that would curb spontaneous protest and formalize abusive expulsions of asylum seekers. The congressional committee on home affairs is due to adopt the bill on November 25, 2014, after which the bill will go the plenary for debate and vote in the coming days.

“The public security bill presents a direct threat to the rights of peaceful assembly and free speech in Spain,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government is trying to give itself broad discretion to curtail and punish dissent.”

The proposed Law on Public Security would allow authorities to fine people who hold spontaneous protests or who show “lack of respect” for law enforcement officers. It would also formalize the existing practice of summary expulsions of migrants and asylum seekers from Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s enclaves in North Africa.

The bill contains a number of provisions that limit when and where protests may take place in ways that interfere unduly with the right to peaceful assembly, including the right to spontaneous protests. Broadly defined “organizers” of such protests in public places could be fined up to €600 (US$752) because the authorities have not been notified in advance, whether or not they cause a disturbance. The bill would also stifle freedom of speech by allowing hefty fines for showing “lack of respect” for law enforcement officers in the course of their duties.

The bill revises and expands on an existing law covering public security, giving administrative authorities the power to impose sanctions ranging from a minimum of €100 ($125) for minor infractions to a maximum of €600,000 ($752,972) for very serious infractions. The administrative sanctions envisioned do not appear to be necessary or proportionate. Although raucous and disruptive protests have become a part of life in Spain, the vast majority are peaceful. According to official Interior Ministry data, there were disturbances in only 323 out of 33,124 demonstrations in 2013, less than 1 percent. In the first three months of 2014, disturbances were recorded in only 62 out of 10,837 demonstrations.

Some of the infractions described in the bill were previously classified as minor offenses in Spain’s criminal code. The law would allow authorities to bypass the courts to punish protesters without the guarantee of a judicial process. Courts have quashed complaints against leaders and participants in demonstrations, affirming the right to spontaneous, nonviolent protest.

Freedom of assembly and speech are basic human rights essential for the exercise of other human rights and the enjoyment of democracy. European and international human rights law require limiting any restrictions on the right to assembly and on freedom of speech to what is necessary in a democratic society. The manner and intensity of state interference must be necessary to attain a legitimate purpose, and any restriction must also be proportionate. Laws regulating freedom of assembly must be crafted precisely to minimize room for arbitrariness.

The bill contains provisions that affect other basic rights, such as the right to asylum and the right to nondiscrimination, Human Rights Watch said.

An amendment to the bill, later revised, would formalize the practice of summary expulsions from Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s enclaves in North Africa. The current wording would allow the automatic return to Morocco of anyone caught attempting to cross over the fences along the enclave borders in a group. National and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called previously on the Spanish parliament to reject the measure. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and the European Commission have also expressed concern about the plan. Automatic returns without any procedural safeguards constitute a clear breach of European and international human rights law and put asylum seekers and migrants at greater risk of abuse.

In a more positive development, the bill revises existing law on police identity checks to include the important requirement for such stops to respect the principle of nondiscrimination. While this is a step in the right direction, the current text does not go far enough to prevent and remedy abusive identity checks and the use of ethnic profiling, Human Rights Watch said. The law should explicitly define and prohibit ethnic profiling, require all stops to be based on an individualized, reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, and should create a means for ensuring accountability and appropriate data collection.

The government adopted a first draft of the bill in December 2013. Following significant criticism – and protests – from nongovernmental organizations and recommendations from the General Council of the Judiciary among other institutions, the government presented a new version in July that eliminated or toned down many, but not all, of the most problematic provisions. While opposition parties tried to block the entire bill and subsequently proposed dozens of amendments, the ruling Popular Party has an absolute majority in parliament.

“If ever there was a time for conscientious Popular Party parliamentarians to break ranks, this is it,” Sunderland said. “They should not allow Spain to become the European country that stifles voices on the street and tramples fundamental rights.”

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