Spanish on warpath over sedition law changes

Spain’s right-wing opposition is furious at the government’s plans to scrap sedition, the charge against Catalan separatist leaders, and condemned the move as a gift to pro-independence parties in exchange for parliamentary support.

Parliament on Thursday approved a criminal code reform bill to ditch what Spain’s left-wing coalition government sees as outdated and replace it with one more aligned with modern European norms.

And the change should take place before the end of the year, according to Spanish media reports.

In response, the far-right Vox party called for protests in Madrid on Sunday, while the right-wing opposition Popular (PP) party called rallies across the country to voice its opposition.

Right-wing parties say the removal of the riot – the charge that convicted and jailed nine Catalan separatists for their involvement in a failed 2017 bid for independence – will pave the way for another attempt to secede from Spain.

Originally sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison, the left-wing government pardoned the separatists last year, infuriating the Spanish right-wing.

“Great for those in Catalonia looking to stage another coup!” PP MP Edurne Uriarte said in a parliamentary debate about the proposed changes to the law.

– Like European democracies –

The failed bid for independence sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, as then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fled abroad to avoid prosecution.

Spain says its efforts to have her extradited have foundered because many European countries simply don’t recognize hate speech as a crime, and the law seeks to recast the offense as “aggravated public disturbance”.

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

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

But even Puigdemont has expressed concerns about the change in law, saying the separatists who are celebrating the move “have learned nothing from the last five years”.

The new offense would carry a maximum sentence of five years behind bars, compared to 15 years for the crime of sedition.

Opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo urged Sanchez “to clarify whether he is indeed reforming the crime of sedition to protect Spanish democracy, or whether he is just trying to survive politically” – implying that the bill would require a payback for support the Independence Party was in Parliament.

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

– Some restraint on the left –

The PP managed to ensure Thursday’s vote was loud, a rare procedure in Spain where lawmakers verbally declare their support or opposition to a law to force the more reluctant Socialists to put their cards on the table .

The Spanish Penal Code currently defines sedition as “the public incitement and use of mass rioting to prevent the implementation of the law by force or by extra-legal means”.

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

The crime has survived several legislative reforms, 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 committed in Spain in 1822 and goes back 200 years when there were still military uprisings,” Sanchez said earlier this month, pointing to Germany, where sedition was abolished in 1970.

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

“It worries us… (that the new offence) could have a restrictive effect on the right to peaceful protest,” argued Pablo Echenique, spokesman for far-left Podemos, the junior Social Democrat coalition partner behind the movements Abolish Sedition.