Spain | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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Parliamentary elections held in March 2008 returned the ruling Socialists to power with a clear victory but just short of a majority. In May and November, French and Spanish police captured two key leaders of the Basque terrorist group, ETA. Despite these arrests, there were a number of violent attacks carried out by the Basque terrorist group during the year. In June, tens of thousands of truck drivers went on strike to protest the price of diesel.

Peninsular Spain’s current borders were largely established by the 16th century, and after a period of great colonial expansion and wealth, the country declined in relation to its European rivals. Most of its overseas possessions had been lost in wars or revolts by the end of the 19th century. The Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 led to the deaths of more than 350,000 people and ended in victory for General Francisco Franco’s right-wing Nationalists, who executed, jailed, and exiled the leftist Republicans. During Franco’s long rule, many countries cut off diplomatic ties, and his regime was ostracized by the United Nations from 1946 to 1955. The militant Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), or Basque Fatherland and Freedom, was formed in 1959 with the aim of creating an independent Basque homeland and went on to carry out a campaign of terrorist bombings and other illegal activity. After a transitional period following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain emerged as a parliamentary democracy, joining the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union (EU), in 1986.

During the March 2004 parliamentary elections, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) won more than 43 percent of the vote, capturing 164 seats in the Congress of Deputies, the parliament’s lower house. The conservative Popular Party (PP), which had been in power for 11 years, was reduced to 148 seats. Lacking an outright majority, the PSOE relied on the regionalist parties to support its legislation. In the Senate, the PP led by winning 102 directly elected seats, while the PSOE took 81.

The elections came only three days after multiple terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid that killed close to 200 people. Shortly after the bombings, the conservative government blamed ETA, a factor that angered voters when it was discovered that the perpetrators were instead linked to Islamic fundamentalists. The attacks allegedly came in response to the conservative government’s staunch support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Shortly after becoming prime minister, the PSOE’s Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pulled Spain’s contingent of 1,300 troops out of Iraq. In October 2007, a Spanish court handed down long prison sentences for 21 of the 28 defendants charged in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings; seven of the accused were acquitted. In January 2008, a key suspect in the 2004 Madrid terrorist bombings was arrested in Morocco and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December that year. In March 2006, the parliament passed an autonomy plan for the northeastern region of Catalonia despite resistance from the opposition PP. Catalonian voters in June approved the plan, which gave the region national status within Spain and greater control over taxation, judicial matters, and immigration.

Peace talks between the Spanish government and ETA broke down in January 2007, after the separatist group claimed responsibility for a December 2006 bombing in a parking garage at the Barajas Airport. Negotiations had begun in July 2006, after ETA announced its first permanent ceasefire in March of that year. The Supreme Court banned hundreds of candidates from participating in May 2007 local elections in the Basque region, accusing them of links to ETA. In October, the authorities arrested 17 members of Batasuna, ETA’s political wing, for holding an illegal meeting and having links to a terrorist organization. Batasuna, which had previously garnered between 5 and 10 percent of the regional vote, was banned in 2003.

In February 2008, 14 members of Batasuna were arrested in Spain. In May, French police captured Javier Lopez Pena, a senior ETA commander, and in November, Mikel Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina—one of the organizations most senior leaders—was arrested in France. Despite these arrests, ETA carried out over 20 violent attacks during the year, killing at least 2 people, including a police officer. Meanwhile, a referendum associated with the call for Basque independence was scheduled in October, but was overturned by the Spanish Constitutional court the month prior.

Parliamentary elections held in March 2008 returned the PSOE to power. The PSOE, which had focused on liberal reforms, such as gender equality and same-sex marriage, won 43.5 percent of the vote in the lower house, followed by the PP, which captured 40.1 percent. The Convergence and Union (CiU) won 3.1 percent; the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), 1.2 percent; the Republican Left of Catalonia, (ERC) 1.2 percent; and other parties, 10.8 percent.

Despite surveillance efforts by European and African governments, African migrants continued to land on the Canary Islands in overcrowded boats. In August 2008,at least 25 African migrants died off Spain’s southern coast, and in September, the bodies of 13 migrants were found on the Canary Islands. However, the number of migrants reaching the country by boat has significantly dropped since 2006, due partly to a new EU surveillance system, with aircraft and ships posted off the coast of Africa. The EU has also been active in establishing job centers in Africa to regularize migration. In 2006, Spain and Senegal signed a cooperation agreement that would discourage illegal migration while organizing the recruitment of legal workers.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Spain is an electoral democracy. The Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the National Assembly, has 350 members elected from party lists in provincial constituencies. The Senate has 259 members, with 208 elected directly and 51 chosen by regional legislatures. Members of both the Senate and Congress serve four-year terms.Following legislative elections, the prime minister, known as the president of the government, is selected by the monarch and is usually the leader of the majority party or coalition. The candidate must also be elected by the National Assembly. The country’s 50 provinces are divided into 17 autonomous regions with varying degrees of power, in addition to the two North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

People generally have the right to organize in political parties and other competitive groups of their choice. The Basque separatist Batasuna party was permanently banned in 2003 for its alleged ties to the armed group ETA.           

The U.S. State Department’s Report on Human Rights in 2008 cited several instances of official corruption during the year, including police fraud and the defrauding of a municipality. Several mayors in the past three years have been arrested for corruption-related offences. Spain was ranked 28 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The country has a free and lively press, with more than 100 newspapers covering a wide range of perspectives and actively investigating high-level corruption. Daily newspaper ownership, however, is concentrated within large media groups like Prisa and Zeta. Journalists who oppose the political views of ETA are often targeted by the group.In 2008, ETA carried out three bomb attacks against the media in Bilbao and its environs. In June, a Spanish judge re-opened the case of Spanish journalist Ricardo Ortega, who was shot in Haiti in 2004 covering the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. An investigation by Antena 3, the television station where the journalist worked, found that the shot could have come from the U.S. military, which was in the country at the time as part of an international force brought in to maintain order. Internet access is not restricted.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed through constitutional and legal protections. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion and enjoys privileges that other religions do not, such as financing through the tax system. Jews, Muslims, and Protestants have official status through bilateral agreements with the state, while other groups (including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons) have no such agreements. The government does not restrict academic freedom. However, ETA has sought to silence academics who criticize its political goals.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government respects this right in practice. People are free to demonstrate and speak publicly. Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations operate without government restrictions. With the exception of members of the military, workers are free to organize and join unions of their choice and also have the right to strike. About 15 percent of the workforce is unionized. In June 2008, tens of thousands of Spanish truck drivers went on strike to protest the then rising price of diesel, which had increased by 20 percent; they were demanding that the government set a minimum price for their services.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, there have been concerns about the functioning of the judicial system, including the impact of media pressure on sensitive issues such as immigration and Basque terrorism. There have been reports of police abuse of prisoners, especially immigrants. Police can also hold suspects of certain terrorism-related crimes for up to five days with access only to a public lawyer. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Spanish law allows judges to try suspects for crimes committed abroad if they are not facing prosecution in their home country. In July 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that former Argentine general Ricardo Cavallo would stand trial in Spain for crimes against humanity that he allegedly committed during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, in which the military government targeted suspected dissidents.In May, a Spanish court threw out murder charges against three U.S. servicemen in connection with an April 2003 shooting in Iraq.

The parliament in 2005 enacted legislation that legalized same-sex marriage and allowed gay couples to adopt children. Women enjoy legal protections against rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment in the workplace. However, violence against women, particularly within the home, remains a serious problem. The current prime minister has made the protection of women’s rights and gender equality a centerpiece of his administration.

In March 2007, the Spanish parliament passed a law requiring that political parties run women candidates in at least 40 percent of the seats that they contest. The law also orders larger companies to institute “equality plans” that promote women and grants 15 days of paternity leave to new fathers. Women won 36 percent of the seats in the lower house in the 2004 elections, a 7 percent increase from the previous elections in 2000.

Trafficking in women for the purpose of sexual exploitation remains a problem in Spain. However, in its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department found that the country made a strong effort to combat trafficking through law enforcement. New legislation in 2007 increased the penalty for those convicted of trafficking if they are part of a criminal organization, and it allows the courts to prosecute cases that happen outside of Spain’s boarders. The country also continued to offer assistance to trafficking victims and made efforts to reduce the demand for prostitution. In October 2008, police arrestedover 120 people suspected of involvement in a child pornography ring that reached over 75 countries. Over the last five years, over 1,200 people have been arrested in connection with child pornography in Spain.