Police escort a suspect who was detained during early morning raids in an operation against a group suspected of financing and recruiting Islamist militants in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, near Barcelona, October 16, 2008.

© 2008 Reuters

The death toll from the vile attacks which rocked Catalonia two weeks ago has now risen to 16, as some of the most gravely injured have succumbed to their wounds. Troubling details about the background of the alleged ringleader of the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils continue to emerge. Questions remain about the level of information sharing between central and regional police authorities, and international security agencies.

Against this backdrop, there have been worrying attacks in the media – including in national broadsheets and on mainstream TV channels – against lawyers who defend people accused of terrorism. Some of the shrillest accusations – calling them “ethically reprehensible”, or pointing to their “professional connections with alleged jihadists” – have centered on two lawyers who have represented defendants in terrorism proceedings, including the suspected ringleader of the Barcelona attack as well as people arrested in previous counterterrorism operations in Catalonia in 2006 and 2008.

The media attacks are laden with politics; both lawyers have since been elected representatives of the left-wing parties Barcelona in Common and Popular Unity Candidacy, the latter of which favors Catalan independence. One is a deputy mayor of Barcelona, and the other is a deputy in the Catalan parliament. The upcoming referendum on the region’s future is bitterly disputed in Spain.

Bedrock principles like the rule of law face their hardest test in times like these. One of the hallmarks of a democracy that respects human rights is that people accused of terrible crimes enjoy the presumption of innocence and are allowed to defend themselves in a fair hearing before a court of law. These rights are enshrined in the Spanish constitution, as well as European and international law. And for them to have any meaning, criminal defense lawyers need to be willing and able to take on tough, unpopular cases, without fear of retribution or attack.

Spain’s government and major party leaders need to loudly defend these basic principles, as professional bodies (Catalan and Spanish alike) and activist lawyers have already done. Beyond political disagreements, leaders should remind the Spanish people that justice for terrible crimes can only happen when those accused of terrorism are tried according to the rule of law and allowed to properly defend themselves in court.