The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued today its judgment of the case Del Río Prada v. Spain. By 15 votes to 2, the Court held that Spain has violated Article 7 (no punishment without law) of the European Convention of Human Rights, and has unanimously concluded that since July 2008 Ms. del Río’s detention has not been lawful, in violation of Article 5.1 of the Convention. Consequently, the Court has ordered Spain to ensure the release of the applicant as soon as possible.
This case had generated very high expectations in Spain because Ms. del Río had been convicted for a number of terrorist attacks, including several killings. In February 2006, the Supreme Court departed from its previous interpretation of the Spanish penitentiary legislation and adopted a new criterion (known as “Parot doctrine”, due to the name of the first ETA member it was applied to) based on which the release of ETA prisoners sentenced for crimes committed before 1995 (when the current Criminal Code was adopted) would be delayed for some time. Since 2006, the Parot doctrine has also been applied to non-ETA major perpetrators. The rationale of the Strasbourg Court’s decision is that the applicant could not have foreseen either that the Supreme Court would change its case-law or that this change would affect her.
The judgment didn’t come as a surprise, since the Court had already ruled in this sense in July 2012. Yet, the Spanish Government requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber, which has announced the decision this morning. The Grand Chamber’s judgment is final and legally binding.
The importance of the case at hand is that its implications go way beyond this particular case. According to the Government’s information, about 60 ETA members will have to be released immediately and 75 more will benefit in the near future. A handful of non-ETA members will be affected as well. As a consequence of this ruling, approximately 20% of ETA inmates will be out of prison soon, including many who committed particularly heinous crimes, such as repeated murders.
Only a few minutes ago the Spanish ministers of Justice and Interior have convened in a joint press conference. They have made clear their disagreement with the Court while expressing their support to the numerous victims that ETA left behind. Both ministers have also announced that it is the Government’s view that each ETA prisoner should request the release individually, in a clear attempt of delaying the whole process. When one of the journalists in the room asked the ministers if the Government had considered disobeying the Court, despite his disagreement, the minister of Justice has given the only valid response: The Kingdom of Spain is a Member State of the Council of Europe, it has ratified the European Convention of Human Rights and therefore it will comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. The Spanish court that must execute the decision (Audiencia Nacional) has called an extraordinary plenary to take the necessary measures accordingly.
We will see how rapidly and effectively the decision made in Strasbourg is implemented in practice both for Ms. del Río and for all other inmates in the waiting room. However, today no other reaction would have been acceptable from the Government.
Spain cannot teach many lessons nowadays, but here we have the one thing the UK Government and its opposition can learn. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly demanded the UK to lift the total ban on prisoners voting, but the UK has consistently defied the Court on this matter. The Government very well knows that its position is popular, and most of the other parties seem to agree. In February 2012 the Parliament voted by a majority of 234 against 22 to keep the blanket ban on prisoners’ voting rights.
The UK can hardly claim that denying the right to vote to their prisoners is more widely supported and more of a national interest than keeping as many ETA prisoners in jail is for Spain. Yet, so far both governments clearly differ in their reaction. I can only wish the Spanish Government applies the ruling promptly and with all its consequences and that the UK Government and opposition parties come to their senses at once.