The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France unanimously ruled Tuesday that Spain must compensate Jaume Roura and Eric Stern for violating their right to free speech when they were wrongfully condemned for burning a picture of the king and queen.
The two catalan men had to pay US$3,300 each to avoid a 15-month prison sentence imposed by a Spanish National Court in 2008 after they burned images of the Spanish king and queen during a protest against their visit to Girona.
The Spanish state must now reimburse the US$3,300 and pay an additional US$11,000.
The European Court believes burning pictures cannot be interpreted as hate speech and considers the conviction was disproportionate. In its ruling the court states that including political criticism to an institution such as the Spanish crown within incitement to hatred “would be detrimental to pluralism, tolerance, and the spirit without which there is no democratic society.”
The Spanish court had justified its ruling, citing incitement to hatred as a limit to freedom of expression. However, the European tribunal argues this limitation does not apply because burning the king’s image was part of a political expression of dissatisfaction “within a debate of public interest, specifically, Catalan independence, the monarchic state, and a criticism of the king as a symbol of the Spanish nation.”
Under article 578 of Spain’s criminal code people found guilty of “glorifying terrorism," justifying terrorism or humiliating victims of terrorism can be jailed, fined, and banned from employment in the public sector.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have requested the legislation be overturned arguing authorities have made use of this broad legal provision to punish satire and dissent.
In 2018 alone, Santiago Sierra’s art piece Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain was removed from an international art fair in Madrid, and rappers Valtonyc and Pablo Hasel were convicted and sentenced to 3.5 and two years in prison, respectively.