Spain passes controversial changes to sedition and misuse of funds laws in midst of constitutional crisis

THE SPANISH government’s controversial changes to the laws covering sedition and the misuse of public funds were approved by the Senate on Thursday, in the midst of an ongoing constitutional crisis sparked by the opposition Popular Party and the Constitutional Court. 

The Socialist Party-led coalition, which is backed by junior partner Unidas Podemos, has scrapped the archaic offence of sedition entirely to replace it with ‘aggravated public disorder’. Misuse of public funds, meanwhile, will now carry a lower prison sentence if there is no personal gain. 

Both of these changes were passed last week by the government in the lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies, and will now pass into law after their approval by the Senate. 

The measures are part of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s strategy to make concessions in a bid to resolve the Catalan independence crisis, which peaked in 2017 when an illegal referendum on secession from Spain was held and a unilateral declaration of independence made in the regional parliament. 

The changes to the Criminal Code will benefit not just the pro-independence politicians and civic leaders who were given prison sentences and banned from public office for their role in the events of 2017, but also those who are yet to be tried.

For example, the then-regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since the events of 2017 and is yet to see the inside of a courtroom. He will now face a lower sentence for his alleged offences should he ever return to Spain.

carles puigdemont

Sedition, which has now disappeared from the Criminal Code, used to carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail. The new offence of aggravated public disorder will have a maximum of five years. 

Misuse of public funds previously carried a maximum sentence of 12 years, but now, if there is no personal gain, the maximum will be four years.  

The Senate did not, however, vote on one part of the changes that the government had included in its changes to the Criminal Code last week.

Deadlock

In a bid to break the deadlock in Spain’s judiciary – the PP is refusing to cast the necessary votes to renew the country’s legal watchdog, the CGPJ – the express reforms included a change to the majorities needed for such a renewal as well as the way that members of the Constitutional Court are chosen.

The Constitutional Court took the unprecedented step this week of upholding an injunction filed by the PP and prohibited the Senate from voting on these amendments. The PP argued that the express nature of the law prevented deputies in Congress from properly debating the changes.

The move has drawn widespread condemnation from the leftist parties, with Prime Minister Sánchez calling it ‘unprecedented’, and there have been claims that the judicial branch is encroaching on the legislative branch. 

It may, however, prove to be a pyrrhic victory for the PP. The government and the smaller parties that back it have already announced that they will table another law – this time not via the express route – so that they can substitute the four magistrates whose mandates have expired and whose replacement is being impeded by the deadlock in the CGPJ.

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