SPAIN: Feminist and housing movements under pressure but resisting – interview with Defender a quien Defiende

Since 2015, Spain has in place restrictive legislation dubbed “Gag Laws”. In 2018, the Socialist Government led by Pedro Sánchez opened a window of opportunity for reform, which was suddenly stalled when the new General Elections were called for the 28 April 2019. Social movements saw this as a clear signal of lack of political will to end the Gag Laws.

We interview Serlinda Vigara from the Intenational Institute for Nonviolent Action (NOVACT), one of the organisations behind the coalition Defiende a quien defiende, to understand how civil society and social movements have been organising to resist.

Could you tell us more about Defender a quien defiende?

Defender a quien Defiende is a platform formed by human rights defenders, journalists, psychologists, legal experts and social movements, that fight against the criminalisation of protests. We started to work in 2014, one year before the approval of the so-called Gag Laws in Spain.Our main goals are the fight against laws and governmental actions that criminalize human right defenders in Spain and violate their rights in the context of protests; to improve capacities, actions and coordination of civil society organizations to influence politically, socially and legally the protection of rights; to support the development of public policies and social practices that work for a ‘Human security’ concept.

Can you tell us more about the gag laws?

When we say “gag law”, we refer concretely to the “Organic Law for the Protection of Citizen Security”, in force since July 1st, 2015 – which criminalises the freedom of expression, information or demonstration. When we speak of “gag laws”, we also talk about two processes that occurred in parallel and that laid the foundations of the repression of social movements and dissidence: the reform of the Penal Code and anti-jihadist law. The gag laws are being used against activism and social movements and have produced demobilisation and criminalisation of the right to protest through sanctioning peaceful actions of protest of many active social movements in Spain. [These laws] are typifying these actions as “disobedience or resistance to the authority”, with fines ranging between 600 and 30,000 Euro.

How do you use the monitoring from the MALLA network to support your activities?

Red Malla collects and analyses violations of human rights – specifically the right to assembly, information and freedom of expression – committed by police forces in Spain. Red Malla is a support network and works with the data collected by the “Nodes”, working groups. Now, we have nodes active in Madrid, Granada, Seville, Zaragoza and Barcelona. Last year we published our first report, which helped us to detect the movements that are most vulnerable and anticipate the repression. Thanks to the analysis of these data, we suspected, for example, that this year at the women’s demonstration, the feminist movement would be repressed and we develop communication strategies in order to protect each other.  Red Malla not only shows the repression. Red Malla teaches where the resistance is and creates the possibility and the context for alliances and solidarity.

Where does the resistance to these laws lie?

These last months we have monitored two fronts of hard resistance: the feminist movement and the housing movement. About the feminist movement, we have observed many incidents during the general strike of March 8th. For example, in Catalonia, the 8M Committee of Manresa stated that the day was marked by violence by the security forces during all the events. For example, during a road cut in an industrial estate, 15 people were identified, between shoves, hits, threats and arbitrary identifications. Also important the incident in Malaga, where the National Police blocked a street to identify nearly thirty women who were going to have lunch at an Alternative Social Center before the demonstration organised by feminist groups. 

If we take a look into the housing movement, in recent months, we have monitored seven people detained on February 22 in the protests linked to the evictions that took place on Calle Argumosa 11, in Madrid and two detained on March 14, in Barcelona. Several journalists from the Sants district were also fined under the Gag Law while covering the news of an eviction and mistreatment of the people who resisted a destitution in Maresa. 

You are also among the observers of the trial on the events related to the Referendum of the 1st of October 2017 in Catalonia. How does this interplay with this criminalization of protests? 

We are in a repressive context in a permanently transitional state, where we continue to systematically witness restrictions and human rights violations. Using the concept of security of the homeland, the argument is that every movement and resistance is a problem for the public order.

For Defender a quien Defiende, the protests on 1st October in Catalonia were an example of this situation. A peaceful event resulted in 1066 people wounded by the state’s security forces. The biggest problem about the trial is the sentences to two activists, Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart. They are sentenced for ‘rebellion’ and ‘disobedience’ for the peaceful protests that they called for as heads of their respective civic organisations. The crime of rebellion is one of the most serious crimes of the Spanish penal code, it implies a “violent and public uprising” and is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

What can we expect from the upcoming general elections in Spain?

The political polls show that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) could govern again but, in this context so unstable it is difficult to trust surveys. All the analyses focus on the possibility of a rise of the right, and – what we are most concerned about – the extreme right. We hope that they will not have the capacity to govern. In any case, the platform Defender a quien defiende has a critical opinion and mistrust toward the PSOE due to the complicity showed with the perpetuation of the gag laws when in government.