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Case of Laguna Guzman v. Spain

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Assembly
  • Date of Decision
    October 6, 2020
  • Outcome
    Admissible, ECtHR, Article 11 Violation
  • Case Number
    41462/17
  • Region & Country
    Spain, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)
  • Type of Law
    International/Regional Human Rights Law
  • Themes
    Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that the forceful and violent dispersal of a demonstration by police officers that injured a protester violated her freedom of assembly. The case concerned Ms Guzman who was peacefully protesting with a rogue demonstration group. She, along with others, was attacked and incapacitated by police officers in their effort to disperse the demonstration. An investigation against some of the police officers was dismissed whilst another against some protesters ended with their acquittal. The Audiencia Provincial confirmed dismissing the proceedings against the policemen, saying that they had acted legitimately. Additionally, the Constitutional Court declared Ms Guzman’s amparo appeal inadmissible. Taking into account the fact that the protests were peaceful and there was no evidence that they caused public disorder, the European Court held that the violent method used by the police to disperse the protesters was not justified and amounted to a disproportionate interference.  Accordingly, the Court found that Ms Guzman’s right to freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights had been violated.


Facts

The applicant in this case was Ms Montserrat Laguna Guzman. In February 2014, Ms Guzman took part in a demonstration in Valladolid that protested about various social issues. Following the demonstration, a rogue group of protesters marched towards Plaza de San Lorenzo. This protest was spontaneous, and authorities were not informed of it. Some politicians were having lunch in a restaurant at Plaza de San Lorenzo when the protesters gathered outside holding a placard.

Immediately, police asked the protesters to peacefully dissolve to allow traffic to pass. The protesters refused and tensions escalated. Police officers pushed protesters to the ground, hit them with truncheons, or kicked them. Some protesters were arrested, and two police officers were injured. Ms Guzman was struck violently by a police officer with, what she claimed, was a truncheon. According to multiple medical reports, the applicant suffered injuries to her mouth and her hand and was subsequently given the status of “permanently incapacitated to perform her usual activities” [para. 15].

Criminal proceedings were brought before Valladolid investigating judge no. 4 against ten police officers for causing bodily harm and against some of the protesters for “disobedience, resisting police officers and assault” [para. 17]. Ms Guzman appeared before the investigating judge to give a statement as a witness and victim. On May 23 and 31, 2016 investigating judge no. 4 provisionally discharged the police officers under investigation and decided to continue the proceedings against four of the protesters. On November 21, 2016, after the charges had been presented by the public prosecutor, investigating judge no. 4 decided to address proceedings against four protesters (other than the applicant) and send them to the competent criminal judge for them to be examined on the merits. The defendants in the case lodged appeals with the Audiencia Provincial of Valladolid against the decision to discharge the police officers. The Audiencia Provincial confirmed dismissing the proceedings against the policemen, stating that the police intervention was justified because protesters had occupied a public road and instigated violence – only “the police [had] acted legitimately” [para. 19].

Meanwhile, investigations continued against the protesters. In November 2016, charges against the protesters were presented by the public prosecutor and investigating judge no. 4 sent them to the criminal court.

In April 2018, the criminal judge acquitted three of the accused protesters, finding that the attitude and behavior of the protesters had not justified the indiscriminate use of force by the police. The judge observed that the protesters had not obstructed traffic, threatened anyone or tried to enter the restaurant, and they had not attacked the police officers. He stated that “the right to freedom of assembly [had been] violated” [para. 23].

In November 2016, Ms Guzman lodged an amparo appeal, arguing that her right to a fair trial had been violated by the refusals to further enquire into the police officers’ alleged offences. She also claimed that her rights to freedom of thought, of expression and of assembly and association had been violated. On February 22, 2017 the Constitutional Court declared the appeal inadmissible because Ms Guzman had not duly complied with the obligation to prove that her appeal was of “special constitutional relevance” [para. 21].

In January 2017, Ms Guzman brought an administrative claim against the Ministry of the Interior for liability for her injuries. It was rejected and she appealed to the Audiencia Nacional. Taking into account the April 2018 judgment, the Audiencia Nacional on March 27, 2019 found that the State was liable for the conduct of the police whose response had been disproportionate. The administration was ordered to pay to the applicant 10,000 euros.

On the May 29, 2017, the applicant lodged an application with the ECtHR complaining that the interference by police violated her freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights.


Decision Overview

The Court sought to determine if there was an interference, if that interference was justified under Article 11(2), and if the interference was lawful and pursued a legitimate aim.

The applicant contended that the authorities had interfered with her right to freedom of assembly by interrupting the demonstration, arresting some of the protesters, and using disproportionate force against her and others. She noted that none of the protesters were violent and had intended to enter the restaurant, and violence was instigated only by the police.

The Government claimed that the interference with the applicant’s freedom of peaceful assembly had complied with domestic law and had been necessary for the maintenance of public order. They claimed that the applicant and others had obstructed traffic, disturbed public order, and presented a danger near the restaurant. The action taken had been considered proper and needed in a democratic society.

Firstly, the Court reiterated that interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly can comprise various measures taken by the authorities. “Restrictions” under Article 11 § 2 is interpreted to include measures taken before or during an assembly and those taken afterwards. The Court observed that the applicant’s conduct was not violent, but she was still injured during the police dispersal. In these circumstances, there was interference directly related to the applicant’s exercise of her right to freedom of peaceful assembly under Article 11.

Given the scope of the applicant’s complaints, the Court decide not to delineate issues of legality. It moved on to examine whether the dispersal of the demonstration was necessary in a democratic society, which also took into consideration whether the interference pursued a legitimate aim. Doing so required the Court to determine whether standards that the national authorities applied were in conformity with the principles of Article 11 and whether decisions were based on an acceptable evaluation of the facts.

In situations of nonviolent, irregular demonstrators, the Court has required that public authorities display a degree of tolerance so that Article 11’s freedom of assembly is not deprived of all its substance – referenced in ECtHR cases Bukta and Others v. Hungary ECtHR [2007] 25691/04, Fáber v. Hungary ECtHR [2012] 40721/08, and Kudrevičius and Others ECtHR [2015] 37553/05. In this case, the authorities dispersed the spontaneous gathering despite it having been peaceful. There were no arguments or evidence that it would have been difficult for the police to control the situation, protect public safety, and prevent any potential disorder. Likewise, there was no evidence that the protest amounted to heightened public disruption. Thus, the authorities did not cite any relevant and sufficient reasons to justify the dispersal.

Given that the protesters had been violently approached and there was no evidence of them obstructing traffic, attempting to enter the restaurant, or provoking the police officers, the force used by the police was deemed unjustified. Therefore, the method used to disperse the demonstration was not proportionate. As it related to the applicant’s particular involvement, the findings of unjustified use of force were enough to conclude that her Article 11 rights were disproportionately interfered with and amounted to “a termination of her participation in the gathering” [para. 55]. Accordingly, there was a violation of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The case expands freedom of expression in circumstances where a spontaneous protest erupts but is peaceful. Given that context, police force will amount to a disproportionate interference of the fundamental right unless there are sufficient reasons otherwise to justify the dispersal.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

  • ECtHR, Kudrevičius and Others v. Lithuania [GC], App. No. 37553/05 (2015)

    Where irregular demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence, the Court has required that the public authorities show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of
    assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention is not to be deprived of all substance.

  • ECtHR, Fáber v. Hungary, App. No. 40721/08 (2012)

    Where irregular demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence, the Court has required that the public authorities show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of
    assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention is not to be deprived of all substance.

  • ECtHR, Bukta and Others v. Hungary, App. No. 25691/04 (2007)

    Where irregular demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence, the Court has required that the public authorities show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of
    assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention is not to be deprived of all substance.

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

Official Case Documents

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