Back

Senator put in prison for criticising the government

Castells v. Spain  | 1992

Senator put in prison for criticising the government

As a Senator, in 1979 I wrote an article entitled “Outrageous Impunity” in Punto y Hora, where I pointed out cases of murders by police or para-police groups that had gone unpunished... [I was given] a sentence of one year in jail for insulting the high institutions of the nation.

Miguel Castells, quoted by El Nacional - © Photo NacióDigital

Background

Miguel Castells was a lawyer and member of the Spanish senate. In 1979 he wrote an article claiming that the authorities had not properly investigated a series of murders, allegedly carried out by extremist right-wing groups. According to Mr Castells, the extremist groups were guaranteed immunity from prosecution, before their crimes were carried out.

Mr Castells was prosecuted for insulting the government. Several times during the prosecution, Mr Castells offered to prove his accusations. However, the Spanish courts ruled that he was not allowed to give such evidence, because under Spanish law a person could be found guilty of insulting the nation’s institutions even if his accusations were true.

Mr Castells was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, as well as a temporary ban on holding public office or carrying out a profession.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that it is particularly important for citizens to be able to use free speech to hold their government to account. However, under Spanish law at the time, even if a person criticised the government truthfully and in good faith, they could still be convicted of a criminal offence.

Mr Castells could not legally defend himself by showing he had acted in good faith, or by proving that his accusations were true. Convicting him in these circumstances had violated his right to free speech.

Freedom of expression … constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, April 1992 - © Photo ELNACIONAL

Follow-up

Mr Castells was paid compensation and legal costs.

Following this case and others, in 1993 the Spanish Constitutional Court issued a judgment stating that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights would be directly applicable in Spanish law – notably concerning free speech. Among other things, this meant that truth could be used as a defence in Spanish defamation proceedings, so Spanish courts could not rule in the same way again.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers continues to monitor the protection of free speech in Spain.