(CN) – Spain’s criminal conviction of two men who burned a photograph of the Spanish royal couple during a protest of an official visit by the king violated the men’s right to free expression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
In 2007, during the Spanish king’s official visit to Girona, two men set fire to a large, upside-down photograph of the royal couple during a protest while people chanted “The Bourbon out of Girona” and “Catalans do not have a king.”
The men were later charged and convicted of insult to the crown, and originally sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment. A judge ordered them to pay $3,350 each in lieu of prison time, which they eventually paid after their appeals failed.
The men then lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming their convictions had been a violation of their rights to expression and freedom of thought. On Monday, a 7-judge panel with the rights court agreed.
In an opinion made available only in French, the court said the men’s actions had been a political rather than personal critique of the Spanish monarchy. Such staged events have been on the rise in Spain as Catalonia’s bid for independence has gained strength and have been increasingly provocative in order to attract media attention. But the use of fire and an upside-down photograph, while certainly provocative, did not rise to the level of hate speech, the court ruled.
Furthermore, the punishment – 15 months in prison, and the fine in lieu of the prison sentence – was disproportionate to the men’s actions and was instituted for one reason: to stifle free expression, the court found.
The rights court ordered Spain to return the fines and pay each man roughly $6,500 for costs and expenses.
While mostly adored by the people, the Spanish royal family saw a dip in its popularity during the global economic crisis that began in 2008 and from which Spain is only now starting to recover.
Independence-minded people in Catalonia and the Basque Country, however, see the monarchy as a symbol of a united Spain, which they want no part of.