LONDON – A human rights monitor said on Thursday an investigation into the actions of Spanish police to impede voting in Catalonia’s recent independence referendum showed that they had engaged in excessive force when confronting demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it had carried out on-site investigations to document specific incidents after receiving many allegations of unjustified police force during the Oct. 1 poll, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish government and judiciary.
“Our detailed investigation into three cases found that national police and Civil Guard officers used excessive force on October 1 in Catalonia,” said HRW’s Western Europe Researcher, Kartik Raj.
“The police may well have had the law on their side to enforce a court order, but it didn’t give them the right to use violence against peaceful protesters,” Raj added.
The controversial vote had been declared unconstitutional by Spain’s constitutional court.
Nevertheless, the referendum took place across the region, with Spanish police agents – along with members of Catalonia’s police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra – seeking to enforce the court order banning the vote by closing down polling stations, seizing ballot boxes and removing protesters who attempted to block the law enforcement officers.
The ensuing confrontations left 893 people injured, according to estimates by Catalonia’s health department.
The Spanish interior ministry said that 19 national police officers and 14 members of the Civil Guard (a semi-military force tasked with police duties) had required urgent medical assistance.
About 10,000 police officers were sent from across the country to Catalonia on Oct. 1.
HRW said it had documented excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators by Civil Guards or national police at a primary school in Girona being used as a polling station, and in the hillside villages of Aiguaviva (Girona province) and Fonollosa (Barcelona province).
“Footage and photos published by the media and uploads to social networks reviewed by Human Rights Watch appear to show many other instances of manifestly disproportionate use of force against people assembled peacefully in and around polling stations, expressing their political opinion, and in some cases using non-violent disobedience to obstruct police,” the group’s statement added.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government has claimed that all police actions were “prudent, appropriate and proportionate to the objective of ensuring compliance with the law and the rights of all citizens” and denied that they were directed against citizens or their ideas.
HRW pointed out that, contradicting this version, the government’s delegate in Catalonia, Enric Millo – responsible for all security operations in the region – had “expressed regret and apologized” on Oct. 6 for some of the police’s interventions in a television interview.
“Spain must ensure that people enjoy the right to peaceful assembly and can express their opinions freely,” HRW said.
“While the government can impose some restrictions on those rights, measures must be necessary and proportionate for a legitimate aim. Even where people may be acting unlawfully, the state cannot deprive them of their rights, or use excessive force,” the human rights organization added.
Given the current tensions between the central and regional authorities and complex questions of jurisdiction, Spain should consider asking for assistance from an independent international expert body to conduct an effective investigation into the allegations of excessive use of force, HRW explained.