Toni Strubell, Núria Bassa – China and Spain: “Re-Educating” Political Prisoners

Re-education, the new excuse for stripping Catalan political prisoners of their rights.

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan Photo Journalist


Spain’s Re-Educator in Chief, Manuel Marchena Gómez, Magistrate of the Supreme Court of Spain being the Chairman of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court

When focussing on the concept of the re-education or ideological “brainwashing” of political prisoners, it is generally in reference to the treatment bestowed on Uyghur prisoners in China or US prisoners in the Korean war. However, there are convincing grounds to believe that Spain’s notorious Supreme Court is currently involved in seeking similar forms of brainwashing for Catalan independentist prisoners – albeit of a more subtle nature – to make them renounce their ideology. Is Spain violating international treaties that demand the ideological inviolability of political prisoners? It may seem like a local matter to some, but  this should be a matter of concern to the liberal democratic EU. It certainly would be if it were occurring in Poland or Hungary.

While European national courts consistently turn down Spain’s international extradition calls for exiled Catalan president Puigdemont and other ex-ministers (Belgium recently turned down ex-minister Lluís Puig’s), Spain’s Supreme Court is currently denying the limited parole rights of Catalan ex-ministers and activists jailed in Spanish prisons in the same cause. Last week, the paroles of seven of them were arbitrarily suspended by the court soon after they had gained the right to work out of prison on weekdays and spend weekends at home as part of their rehabilitation process. The Supreme Court justifies this measure by saying that such paroles cannot be granted until prisoners have been “politically re-educated”. This is tantamount to saying their parole rights are to be denied as long as they maintain their political convictions. Can the Supreme Court’s attitude be justified in legal terms in the context of international law and legislation?

The suppression of parole permits (traditionally granted by a perfunctory procedure laid down in Article 100.2 of Spanish Penitentiary Norms) was not a matter of course. It was enabled by the fact that the Supreme Court via diktat changed the whole procedure by which the decision to grant prisoners’ permits is made. In an unprecedented, autocratic operation, it usurped the role of the Spanish Evaluation Committees (Juntas de Tratamiento) and Penitentiary Surveillance Courts that have hitherto had the exclusive responsibility for deciding in this field. This has so far resulted in a change in status for seven of the nine Catalan political prisoners who will be losing their paroles and returning to a regime involving 21 hours/day of cell confinement seven days a week. Two other prisoners – both women (ex-Parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and ex-minister Dolors Bassa) – who still enjoy this status, are expected to suffer a similar fate shortly. The question raised is whether this is not a partial case of draconian regulation-bending to deny the rights of prisoners holding particular ideologies by a Court with a long fascist tradition.

The whole affair has given rise to a debate in Spain regarding the concept of the “re-education” of prisoners. The fact that there are no recent precedents for those convicted of such an old-fashioned, ill-defined crime as “sedition” (in fact, few nations contain this concept in their criminal codes), Spain’s Supreme Court has now tampered with the regulations to deny rights to Catalan prisoners that are readily granted to others on a routine basis.

As expected in Spain the Supreme Court’s encroachment into the field of “political re-education”, has been applauded in Spain’s mainstream media. As usual, only a handful of leading intellectuals and legal experts have protested. Fascism is still anchored in Spain’s political culture. One credited Constitutional Law professor, Javier Pérez Royo, describes the step taken by the court as “Maoist” and associates the call made by judges on prisoners to show repentance with the concept of ideological brainwashing as practised in China against the Uyghurs today or in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union against dissidents. Pérez Royo sees the call for “express conformity” as a form of humiliation practised in totalitarian countries and argues that the interpretation by Spain’s Social Democrats and Supreme Court of the Spanish Constitution (Article 25), was never intended for what he describes as the political brainwashing of dissidents into “correct thinking”, a phenomenon he claims to be occurring in today’s “Social Democratic” Spain.

Pérez Royo argues that the unbridled calls in this direction by the State prosecutor – whom prime minister Sánchez once boasted to be a pawn at his orders – indicates that the initiative is not a mere whim of the Supreme Court, but part of a larger plan to “re-educate” Catalan political dissidents into “correcting” their ideology. It is what Pérez Royo refers to as “political humiliation” in clear contradiction with international law and United Nation’s doctrine. For example, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Spain, clearly states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference”. Article 26 also insists that no forms of discrimination are to be tolerated against people for holding political or other opinions. Yet only when they have been re-educated, says the Supreme Court, can they be allowed to enjoy the policies entitled other convicts to. But this is the European Union where the powerful determine how law is intepreted.

In consequence, with its doctrine, the Supreme Court prosecutor has called upon the penitentiary surveillance judges to immediately cancel the Catalan prisoners’ permits to work out of the prison’s premises. Permits awarded to look after an elderly mother, run a business, work with a Bosnian NGO or teach at the University are now seen as “unsuitable” for those convicted of “sedition”. Apparently they are not conducive to shedding “seditious temptations” or discarding independentist ideas, he claims. “Seditious” Dolors Bassa cannot look after her mother. In contrast, there seem to have been no objections about excarcerating Rosalia Iglesias (ex-PP official Luis Bárcena’s wife) so that she could look after her 30-year-old son despite her 15-year sentence for corruption and embezzlement. No re-education was called for here. Is the ECHR going to turn a blind eye to that too?

The Supreme Court has no intention of lessening its pressure on the independence movement on ideological, rather than strictly criminal grounds, but then that is what fascism is about.

Needless to say, the Supreme Court takes shelter in the claim that the Spanish politicians are not seen as political prisoners, but common delinquents. Isn’t that just what China says about the Uyghurs?

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