Judgment (Merits and Just Satisfaction) of Court (Third Section), March 15, 2011 (case CASE OF OTEGI MONDRAGON v. SPAIN)

Judge:ROUGET D. ; GOIRIZELAIA ORDORIKA J.
Defense:SPAIN
Resolution Date:March 15, 2011
Issuing Organization:Court (Third Section)

THIRD SECTION

CASE OF OTEGI MONDRAGON v. SPAIN

(Application no. 2034/07)

JUDGMENT

STRASBOURG

15 March 2011

FINAL

15/09/2011

This judgment has become final under Article 44 § 2 of the Convention.

In the case of Otegi Mondragon v. Spain,

The European Court of Human Rights (Third Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:

             Josep Casadevall, President,              Corneliu Bîrsan,              Alvina Gyulumyan,              Ján Šikuta,              Luis López Guerra,              Nona Tsotsoria,              Mihai Poalelungi, judges,and Santiago Quesada, Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 8 March 2011,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

PROCEDURE

  1. The case originated in an application (no. 2034/07) against the Kingdom of Spain lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Spanish national, Mr Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon (“the applicant”), on 5 January 2007.

  2. The applicant was represented by Mr D. Rouget and Ms J. Goirizelaia Ordorika, lawyers practising in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Bilbao respectively. The Spanish Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Mr I. Blasco, Head of the Legal Department for Human Rights, Ministry of Justice.

  3. The applicant alleged that the decision of the Supreme Court finding him guilty of serious insult against the King of Spain amounted to an unjustified infringement of his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention.

  4. On 27 November 2008 the President of the Third Section decided to give notice of the application to the Government. It was also decided to rule on the admissibility and merits of the application at the same time (Article 29 § 1 of the Convention).

  5. On 7 June 2009 the applicant requested the Court to hold a public hearing. The Court examined the request. In view of the information available to it, it decided that no hearing was necessary.

    THE FACTS

    1. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE

  6. The applicant was born in 1956. At the time the application was lodged he lived in Elgoibar (Gipuzkoa).

  7. At the time of the events, the applicant was spokesperson for Sozialista Abertzaleak, a left-wing Basque separatist parliamentary group in the Parliament of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country.

    1. Background to the case

  8. On 21 February 2003, following an order issued by central investigating judge no. 6 of the Audiencia Nacional, the premises of the daily newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria were searched and then closed, on account of the newspaper’s alleged links with the terrorist organisation ETA. Ten persons were arrested, including the newspaper’s senior managers (members of the board and the editor-in-chief). After spending five days in secret detention the persons concerned complained that they had been subjected to ill-treatment in police custody.

  9. On 26 February 2003 the President of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country received the King of Spain at the opening of an electricity power station in the province of Biscay.

  10. At a press conference held the same day in San Sebastián, the applicant, as spokesperson for the Sozialista Abertzaleak parliamentary group, outlined his group’s political response to the situation concerning the newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria. Replying to a journalist he said, with reference to the King’s visit to the Basque Country, that “it [was] pathetic”, adding that it was “a genuine political disgrace” for the President of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country to be inaugurating the project with Juan Carlos of Bourbon and that “their picture [was] worth a thousand words”. He went on to say that inaugurating a project with the King of the Spaniards, who was the Supreme Head of the Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and the Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish armed forces, was absolutely pitiful. Speaking about the police operation against the newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria, he added that the King was in charge of those who had tortured the persons detained in connection with the operation. He spoke in the following terms:

    “How is it possible for them to have their picture taken today in Bilbao with the King of Spain, when the King is the Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish army, in other words the person who is in charge of the torturers, who defends torture and imposes his monarchical regime on our people through torture and violence?”

    1. The criminal proceedings in the Basque Country High Court of Justice

  11. On 7 April 2003 the public prosecutor lodged a criminal complaint against the applicant for “serious insult against the King” within the meaning of Article 490 § 3 of the Criminal Code read in conjunction with Article 208, on account of his remarks made on 26 February 2003.

  12. In the proceedings before the Basque Country High Court of Justice, which had jurisdiction to try the applicant because of his status as a member of parliament, the applicant argued that his remarks had constituted political criticism directed against the Head of the government of the Basque Country. He added that to say that the King of Spain was the Supreme Head of the Civil Guard did not imply any intention to undermine dignity or honour; it was merely a statement of the political reality in the Spanish State, where the King exercised supreme command over the armed forces. The applicant further argued that there was no insult or attempt to dishonour in saying that the Civil Guard had tortured the persons detained in connection with the closure of the newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria because that was the reality, and proceedings had been instituted in that connection before the Madrid investigating judge no. 5. Numerous public figures had also commented on the subject. In sum, the applicant, as a politician, had sought to express political criticism in the context of freedom of expression, one of the foundations of the rule of law and democracy. He pointed out in that regard that politicians had greater freedom of manoeuvre when it came to informing society about matters of public interest.

  13. In a judgment of 18 March 2005, the High Court of Justice found the applicant not guilty of the charges against him. After stating that his remarks had been “clearly offensive, improper, unjust, ignominious and divorced from reality”, the court found as follows:

    “... This is not an issue concerning the private life of the Head of State but one of rejection of the ties of political power deriving from the hereditary nature of the institution which he personally symbolises. ... [C]riticism of a constitutional institution is not excluded from the scope of the right to freedom of expression; in this case the latter has the status of a constitutional right which takes precedence over the right to honour. The Constitution does not guarantee the right to freedom of expression solely in relation to certain points of view that are considered correct, but in relation to all ideas, subject to the limits which it lays down ...”

  14. The High Court of Justice summed up as follows:

    “[T]he [applicant’s] remarks were made in a public, political and institutional setting, regard being had not only to the speaker’s status as a member of parliament but also to the authority to which they were addressed, namely the State’s highest judicial authority, and to the context of political criticism of the [Head of the government of the Basque Country] for his official hospitality in receiving His Majesty King Juan Carlos I in the wake of the closure of the newspaper [Euskaldunon] Egunkaria and the detention of its senior managers, and the latter’s public allegations of ill‑treatment. This context is therefore unconnected to the innermost core of individual dignity protected by law from any interference by third parties.”

    1. The appeal on points of law to the Supreme Court

  15. The public prosecutor lodged an appeal on points of law, arguing firstly that the law protected the honour of the King as a specific individual possessed of personal dignity, who had been the object of the offence of insult, and secondly that the law was aimed at ensuring respect for the symbolic content of the institution of the Crown as established by the Spanish Constitution and “represented by the Head of State, the symbol of its unity and permanence”. The seriousness of the offence could be inferred from the fact that the legislature had sought to afford increased protection to the dignity of the King, including vis-à-vis other public authorities (Articles 496 and 504 of the Criminal Code). Furthermore, the inviolability of the King, as proclaimed in Article 56 § 3 of the Constitution, demonstrated the unique position occupied by the Crown in the system of the 1978 Spanish Constitution. That constitutional position highlighted the disproportionate nature of the vexatious and insulting remarks made by the applicant. In the view of the public prosecutor, who referred several times to the case-law of the Strasbourg Court, it was clear that the King had been performing official duties and that he was a figure in the public eye; however, that did not deprive him of the right to respect for his honour. In that regard, the public prosecutor pointed out that Article 20 § 1 (a) of the Constitution did not protect a supposed right to proffer insults. Drawing a parallel with the special protection to be afforded under Article 10 § 2 of the Convention to the judiciary, the public prosecutor further argued that the same protection should be afforded to the Head of State, who was the “symbol of the unity and permanence of the State” and was above party politics, from the “destructive and baseless attack” constituted by the applicant’s remarks. Lastly, in the public prosecutor’s view, the applicant’s remarks could be said to amount to “hate speech” within the meaning of the Court’s case‑law, given the existing situation with...

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