The Spanish government was dealt a legal blow on Tuesday after the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the prosecution of people caught burning photos of Spain’s monarchy.
The case in question stems from the 2008 sentencing of Enric Stern and Jaume Roura who burned images of the Spanish king and queen at the time, Juan Carlos and Sofía, during the monarchs’ visit to the Catalan city of Girona in 2007.
Both men were handed out €2700 fines to avoid prison and a warning that they’d have to serve 15 months behind bars if the sum wasn’t paid.
The ECHR in Strasbourg has now ruled that the decade-old ruling by Spain’s National High Court was “a breach of freedom of expression” and consequently ordered Spain to reimburse the previously accused and now plaintiffs, as well as pay €9,000 in damages.
According to leading Spanish daily El País, the court considered that the burning of the photos “is the kind of provocative scene that’s being used more and more often to get the attention of the media and doesn’t go over the line when getting a critical message across in terms of freedom of expression.”
“The ruling says important things about Catalonia in 2018. The court emphasizes that any act of political criticism must have special protection and also denies that it is an act of incitement to violence,” Benet Salellas, Stern and Roura’s lawyer, told regional broadcaster V3.
According to Salellas, “Strasbourg’s decision reiterates the non-violent character of Catalonia’s independence movement, and the ruling makes it clear that criticism of Spanish state institutions can never be called hate speech”.
Spain’s Constitutional Court has hit back at the ECHR by stating that the European legal body supposedly claims “to sanction and even prevent all forms of expression that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance”.
In December 2016, five other Catalan independence activists were arrested for burning photos of King Felipe VI as well as several Spanish flags.
They stood accused of violating the dignity of a head of state, a crime in Spain, but were pardoned by the National High Courts.
Other anti-monarchy protesters have had to pay hefty fines for similar actions.