Monday, March 23, 2015

Political Persecution of a Catalan Judge

Santiago Vidal is a Catalan judge specialising in penal law and a magistrate in the Barcelona Provincial Court. He is also a lecturer in Penal Law and Criminology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has become a widely recognised figure in Catalonia, where, apart from having been the Catalan spokesman for the Association of Judges for Democracy for several years, he is well known for the progressive nature of sentences passed regarding racial and sex discrimination and the protection of minors. He is a keen defender of the use of the Catalan language in the judiciary. What’s more, he is in favour of the right to self-determination and of independence for Catalonia.



But now Judge Vidal is unable to practise law because, on 26 February 2015, the CGPJ (Consejo General del Poder Judicial, the General Council of the Judiciary), the body that governs all justice in Spain, suspended him as a judge for three years without pay.

The reason for this severe punishment is that Judge Vidal was the leader of a team consisting of jurists and other judges, who preferred to remain anonymous in order to avoid reprisals, which drew up a draft constitution for a possible future Republic of Catalonia. It made no difference that this draft constitution was drawn up in a strictly private and personal way by citizen Vidal, unremunerated and in his free time, without it interfering in any way with the exercising of his profession, which is recognised as excellent.

Judge Vidal is accused of a very serious breach of discipline: disloyalty to the Spanish Constitution and to the Kingdom of Spain for expressing his thoughts and convictions in the form of a hypothetical constitution and also for participating publically in acts in favour of an independent Catalonia.

This sanction is clearly repressive and politically motivated. The CGPJ is not a politically impartial organisation, as 20 of its 21 members are chosen by the Spanish legislative body (the Spanish Parliament and Senate). As a result the majority of the CGPJ are conservatives with strong affinities to the current conservative Spanish Government. It is ironic that this political sanction comes from the CGPJ, the very body whose main function is to ensure the independence of judges and magistrates in the face of other State powers. The voting of the CGPJ divided on party lines: 12 in favour (conservatives chosen by the governing Partido Popular), 9 against (liberals chosen by other parties: PSOE, IU, PNV). So, Judge Vidal has been sanctioned for using his freedom of expression to voice his political ideals by other judges who all voted according to their political ideology, based solely on the political parties which selected them for the CGPJ. Today more than ever we can see that separation of powers does not exist in Spain. We are very far from Montesquieu’s idea that the independence of the judiciary must be real and not merely apparent.

This sanction infringes the fundamental rights of citizen and Judge Vidal: his rights to freedom of thought, opinion and expression, as recognised in the Spanish Constitution itself, in the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (For more details see: www.echr.coe.int/documents/convention_eng.pdf)

That this is a political persecution can be seen in the statement published on 12 February 2015, by the Association of Judges for Democracy. This was prior to the CGPJ verdict, when Judge Vidal was facing a possible life ban from the judiciary, The Association strongly criticised: the political nature of the process as incompatible with the necessary impartiality of a disciplinary body; the infringement of citizen Vidal’s freedom of expression, saying that the proposal to debar him for expressing his opinions was without precedent in the country and was clearly out of all proportion; while not defending his views on independence they defended his right to freedom of expression and creativity and opposed these inquisitorial persecutions. This Association is made up of judges from the whole of Spain and is in no way pro Catalonia or pro Catalan independence,

(For a full text of the statement in Spanish see www.juecesdemocracia.es/txtcomunicados/2015/12febr15.htm)

The politicisation of the Spanish judicial system is well proven . On 11 March 2015 the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (cepej) published a study on the quality of the European judicial system. According to this study Spain is the third lowest EU country with regard to the perception of judicial independence from other powers. It was rated 3.2 in 2013/14, as compared with 4.0 in 2012/13 and 3.7 in 2011/12. In addition Spain is 97 out of 144 in the international ranking for this.

There is no doubt that Judge Vidal, who is noted for his fighting spirit for justice, will explore all avenues in his appeal against the sanction, including, if necessary, going to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, where the Spanish State has already been sentenced on too many occasions for not respecting the fundamental rights of citizens. 

In the meantime, as he is out of a job, Judge Vidal plans to devote the next six months to using his legal expertise to help prepare structures of State, prior to the crucial Catalan elections on 27 September 2015. Perhaps the General Council of the Judiciary has done the cause for Catalan independence a big favour.

Read this article in French, Spanish and Italian

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