Spain approves security laws decried by rights groups

Michaela Cancela-Kieffer, Anna Cuenca
Members of the Guardia Civil stand next to their vehicles as would-be immigrants sit atop a boarder fence separating Morocco from the north African Spanish enclave of Melilla on May 1, 2014 (AFP Photo/Blasco de Avellaneda)

Madrid (AFP) - Spain's lower house of parliament on Thursday approved two new security laws which rights groups warn will curb the right to protest, freedom of the press and the right to asylum.

The ruling conservative Popular Party used its absolute majority in the assembly to pass the bills, which were opposed by all opposition parties and have sparked numerous noisy street demonstrations.

One law reforms Spain's criminal code to reintroduce the possibility of life sentences for especially heinous crimes, such as the murder of a child or handicapped person or for acts of terrorism.

Anyone convicted of such crimes would get a life sentence but could be released after serving between 25 and 35 years, depending on the crime and if they can prove in court they have been rehabilitated.

The second law, which the government calls the Citizens' Security Law, allows for people to be slapped with fines for public order offences without having to go before a judge.

The fines could reach up to 600,000 euros ($655,000) for the more serious offences, such as for unauthorised demonstrations near key infrastructure such as transport hubs, nuclear power plants or refineries if they pose a threat to people or disrupt public services.

The law calls for fines of up to 30,000 euros for about two dozens offences, including for unauthorised demonstrations near the national or regional parliaments if they are deemed to pose a serious security risk or damaging cars, rubbish bins and other urban furniture during a protest.

The law doubles to 600 euros the fine for climbing public buildings and monuments without permission -- as the environmental campaign group Greenpeace often does -- or for "disrespecting" a police officer.

It also sets a fine of up to 30,000 euros for preventing government officials from enforcing administrative or judicial orders -- as many protesters have done in Spain while trying to stop bailiffs evicting poor homeowners.

The security law will also authorise police to immediately deport migrants who arrive at Spain's north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla which have Europe's only two land borders with Africa.

- 'Dark day for Spain'-

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government, which is facing a year-end general election, has repeatedly defended the two bills, saying they will improve public security by targeting the protesters who are prone to violence.

"There are uncontrolled and anti-system groups that take advantage," Luis Aznar, one of the Popular Party lawmakers who is behind the bills, told AFP.

But opposition parties and civil society groups say the bills limit free expression and undermine democracy in a country that only emerged from lengthy right-wing dictatorship in the mid 1970s.

"The entire spirit of the law is repressive. This is a vision of the critical citizen as a dangerous citizen, who causes trouble," Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a lawmaker with the main opposition Socialist Party, told AFP.

Amnesty International called the laws a "two-pronged assault that targets rights and freedoms of Spanish citizens, migrants and refugees."

"Today is a dark day for Spain with these reforms," it said in a statement.

Human Right Watch said the reforms "unjustifiably curtail basic human rights protections" while Greenpeace said they "attack peaceful protests by civil society linked to the economic crisis".

Street protests have became increasingly frequent in Spain in recent years after a sharp economic downturn that has left nearly one in four workers without a job and following huge cuts to education and health spending aimed at shrinking the country's public deficit.

Although most of the recent political protests have been peaceful, some have ended with a handful of protesters clashing with police.