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POLITICS

Why Spain’s right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law

Spain's right-wing opposition is infuriated over government plans to abolish sedition, the charge used against Catalan separatist leaders, decrying the move as a gift to pro-independence parties in exchange for parliamentary support.

Why Spain's right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law
Catalonia's failed independence bid sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Parliament on Thursday approved a bill to reform the criminal code to drop what Spain’s left-wing coalition government sees as an antiquated offence, replacing it with one better aligned with modern European norms.

And the change should be in place before the year’s end, Spanish media reports say.

In response, the far-right Vox party has called a protest in Madrid on Sunday, while the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) has convened rallies across the country to express its opposition.

Right-wing parties say eliminating sedition — the charge used to convict and jail nine Catalan separatists over their involvement with a failed 2017 independence bid — will pave the way for another attempt to separate from Spain.

Initially condemned to between nine and 13 years behind bars, the separatists were pardoned last year by the leftist government, drawing fury from the Spanish right.

“Great for those in Catalonia who want to stage another coup!” PP lawmaker Edurne Uriarte told a parliamentary debate over the planned law changes.

Like European democracies

The failed independence bid sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

Spain says its efforts to have them extradited have failed because many European countries simply don’t recognise sedition as a crime, with the bill seeking to reframe the offence as an “aggravated public disorder”.

The bill aims “to reform the crime of sedition and replace it with an offence comparable to what they have in other European democracies,” Sánchez said earlier this month.

“The crimes committed in 2017 will continue to be present in our penal code, although no longer as crimes of sedition… but as a new type of crime called an aggravated public disorder,” he said.

But even Puigdemont has expressed misgivings about the legal change, saying those separatists celebrating the move “have learned nothing from the last five years”.

The new offence would carry a maximum penalty of five years behind bars, compared with 15 years for the crime of sedition.

Opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo asked Sánchez to “clarify whether he is actually reforming the crime of sedition to protect Spanish democracy or whether he is just trying to politically survive” — implying the bill was payback for pro-independence party support in parliament.

“The PP’s stance is clear: we will increase the penalties for sedition and rebellion, we will make them criminal offences and will make the holding of an illegal referendum a crime,” he said of his party’s position, with a general election on the horizon.

Some reluctance on the left

The PP managed to ensure Thursday’s vote was vocal, a rare procedure in Spain in which lawmakers verbally declare their support or opposition for a bill, in a move forcing the more reluctant Socialists to lay their cards clearly on the table.

Spain’s criminal code currently defines sedition as “publicly rising up and using mass disorder to prevent the implementation of laws, by force or through means outside the law”.

More succinctly, the Royal Academy of Spanish Language defines it as a “collective and violent uprising against authority, against public order or military discipline without reaching the gravity of rebellion”.

The crime has survived various reforms of the legal code, the last of which was in 1995, but its critics say it dates back to the 19th century.

“We are revising a crime that was enacted in 1822 in Spain, dating back 200 years to when there were still military uprisings,” Sanchez said earlier this month, pointing to Germany, where sedition was abolished in 1970.

But reclassifying it as an aggravated public disorder hasn’t satisfied some on the left who fear it could be used against demonstrators.

“It concerns us… (that the new offence) could have some limiting effect on the right to peaceful protest,” argued Pablo Echenique, spokesman for the hard-left Podemos, the Socialists’ junior coalition partner which was behind the moves to abolish sedition.

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POLITICS

Spain’s Sánchez in Morocco to mend fences after crisis

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was in Rabat on Thursday to reset a "strategic partnership" despite criticism from within his left-wing government that it has caved into Moroccan pressure.

Spain's Sánchez in Morocco to mend fences after crisis

Sánchez and a dozen ministers are set to meet Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch for the first “high-level meeting” of its kind since 2015.

“Today we are consolidating a new stage in relations between Morocco and Spain,” Sánchez told journalists in Rabat, saying there was “enormous unexplored potential” between them.

His visit comes less than a year after he drew a line under a year-long diplomatic crisis by reversing decades of neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict to back Morocco’s position.

But Sánchez has faced criticism from both the left and right for the concession to Morocco, including from his administration’s number three, Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz of the hard-left Podemos party.

She has declined to join this week’s trip, in line with her party’s rejection of Sánchez’s “unilateral” U-turn on Western Sahara.

Spain’s right-wing opposition has also slammed Sánchez over the policy, with González Pons, a member of the European Parliament from the Popular Party, saying there was “no greater humiliation than bowing to the will of Morocco”.

Sánchez has defended his move as essential for Spanish interests.

On Thursday he called for new Spanish investments in Morocco, where his country is already the third-biggest foreign investor.

Investment deals

Around 20 deals were signed on Thursday to boost Spanish investments in everything from renewable energy to education, as well as doubling Spanish state support for firms setting up projects there.

Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch said the two countries “want to establish a new economic partnership in the service of development”.

The crisis between Rabat and Madrid had begun in 2021 when Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front which seeks independence for Western Sahara, was treated for Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital.

Weeks later, more than 10,000 migrants surged into Spain’s tiny Ceuta enclave as Moroccan border forces looked the other way, an incident seen as a Moroccan move to punish Madrid.

In March last year, Madrid announced a “new stage” in relations and said it backed the North African kingdom’s plan for the Western Sahara of limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

The following month, Sánchez paid a high-profile visit to Morocco and was hosted by King Mohammed VI.

The Spanish premier came under renewed fire this week for holding a high-level visit to Morocco without being hosted by the monarch.

Conservative newspaper El Mundo said the king “had shown his position of strength by standing Sánchez up”.

However, King Mohammed did this week invite the Spanish premier for a higher-profile state visit in the near future to “reinforce the positive dynamic” in their ties, according to a palace statement.

‘Honeymoon’

Cooperation over clandestine migration and terrorism is also high on the agenda during Sánchez’s visit.

After resuming cooperation with the kingdom, Spain said arrivals of irregular migrants on its territory from Morocco were down by a quarter last year compared with 2021.

Both countries faced criticism from human rights groups after at least 23 migrants died during a mass attempt to enter the Melilla enclave in June 2022.

Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska is set to ask his Moroccan counterpart Abdelouafi Laftit to return deportations of irregular migrants to pre-Covid levels, according to a ministry official.

The visit comes as the European Parliament lifts the immunity of two lawmakers targeted in a Belgian probe into suspected bribery linked to Morocco as well as Qatar.

Morocco has staunchly denied any wrongdoing, but the investigation by Belgian police has sparked tensions between key European states and the North African kingdom.

Moroccan politicians and media have accused France, a staunch ally of the kingdom, of “orchestrating” a European Parliament resolution critical of Morocco’s treatment of the press.

“There’s a honeymoon between Rabat and Madrid, and a cold crisis” between Rabat and Paris, French-Moroccan journalist Mustapha Tossa wrote on news website Atlasinfo.

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