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Popular indictments in Spain: between democratisation of justice and manipulation

admin - January 9, 2019 - Popular indictments

 

This is a guest post based on written material provided by the Catalan National Assembly (Comissió Internacional Assemblea Nacional Catalana) and Toni Fitó, Lawyer and Member of the Coordinating Committee of the Legal Profession in Catalonia. As with all of our guest posts, the views represented are of the author and may not reflect the views of Fair Trials.

 

In criminal cases, alleged offenders are usually brought to justice by a public prosecutor, an independent institution which should guarantee the independence of the prosecution and avoid abusive and interested accusations from third parties. In some countries, however, this public venue is complemented by other ways of bringing an accusation against a person.

In Spain, for instance, a person can be indicted by the alleged victims (private indictment) or by third parties, including organisations, which are not directly affected by the alleged offence but act to protect a public interest (popular indictment).

Those in favour of popular indictments see them as a way to democratise the justice system. Those against, however, denounce the risk that they can be exploited for the sole purpose of damaging the accused, and even extorting money in exchange for a stop to the popular indictment.

In 2016, the leaders of associations Manos Limpias and Ausbanc were jailed on suspicions of extorting money from banks and other defendants and offering, in exchange, to withdraw the popular indictments they previously introduced.

Despite these risks, it is not fully clear when and how the popular indictment can be used. The jurisprudence of the Spanish Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo), in particular, leaves room to interpretation.

In 2007, the Court ruled that if the public prosecution and the private indictment are stopped or abandoned, the popular indictment cannot carry through its accusations on its own (this position is known as Botin doctrine). However, only months after this ruling, the same Court held that it was possible to continue the trial solely on the basis of the popular indictment, as long as the alleged offence affects a public good and no private indictment is introduced (Atutxa doctrine).

In recent cases involving the leaders of Catalan civil society organisations, currently held in pre-trial detention on rebellion charges, far-right political party Vox, which advocates for the illegalisation of those very associations, introduced popular indictments against them and is currently seeking prison sentences which are considerably longer than those sought by the public prosecutor.

In the case of Jordi Cuixart, head of the Omnium organisation, Vox is asking for 62 years of prison, while the public prosecutor is seeking 17. His lawyers stated that Vox’ interest in the case resides “in utilising the proceedings as a stage for its campaign against individuals who are its political and ideological adversaries.”

These cases are re-opening the debate about the fairness of popular indictments. Some people are calling for a ban on political parties and associations from exercising them, given the risk that they could be exploited for political ends.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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