The Supreme Court has annulled the sentence that a Teruel court imposed on two activists who criticized, in a letter published in a newspaper, a judge for endorsing a license to create a clay mine. The judges annulled this conviction for a crime of libel because the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg analyzed the case and agreed with the two activists, understanding that their conviction by the Spanish courts had attacked their freedom of expression and had also imposed an economic sentence that was too high for a criticism of a judge in the context of a public debate.
The letter that provoked the reaction of the Spanish Justice was published in March 2010 in the Diario de Teruel. The signatories were Sergio Benítez and Ivo Aragón, members of the citizen platform called Aguilar Natural, created to protect the natural environment of the Teruel town of Aguilar de Alfambra. It was a letter addressed to a magistrate who had resolved a dispute between the local council and the Watts Blake Bearner company for a license to exploit a clay mine in the area around the town. An issue that had a great neighborhood opposition and that continues to generate controversy to this day.
The judge had ruled in favor of the company and the two condemned men published the letter in the Diario de Teruel criticizing their decision. "He has shown partiality and lack of competence," they said in the first lines and later focused their criticism on the fact that the magistrate had given credibility to the company's expert: "He has not wanted to complicate his life with technical matters, he has ignored them. And it gives the impression of having sentenced first and built the argument later, sustaining it in the Solomonic appearance of a lackey expert opinion. You represent a power, but not Justice, "concluded the letter published in the newspaper.
It was the Prosecutor's Office that decided, ex officio, to start studying a case that ended in a conviction for both for the content of the letter. In 2012, a criminal court in Teruel imposed sentences of 2,400 euros for each one for a crime of serious libel with publicity, in addition to the obligation to pay each one 3,000 euros to the magistrate for moral damages. The Court of Teruel first and the constitutional Court later they rejected her appeals and endorsed that these criticisms of the magistrate were beyond the legal barrier of acceptable criticism of a judicial resolution.
In Spain, no judge understood that this sentence had violated the freedom of expression of the two signatories of the letter. Something that they did appreciate in Strasbourg. Most of the ECHR, in March 2015, ruled that the economic sentence had been excessive and that, furthermore, it represented "a disproportionate interference in the exercise of his right to freedom of expression, and therefore not being necessary in a democratic society." He also established compensation of 6,000 euros for each one on behalf of the Spanish State.
With that sentence in hand, the two went to the Supreme Court requesting the review of their sentence, something that the criminal chamber has just granted in a sentence to which elDiario.es has had access and which has had Andrés as rapporteur Martinez Arrieta. With the approval of the Prosecutor's Office, the Supreme Court explains that this Strasbourg resolution is "sufficient title" to "estimate the appeal for review" that the two presented. The result, according to the operative part, is that the sentence of the Teruel court that sentenced them is annulled.
The criminal chamber of the Supreme Court recently studied a case of criticism issued from the world of politics to judicial decisions. It was the far-right party that unsuccessfully denounced Minister Ione Belarra for accusing the Supreme Court of "prevarication" for convicting Alberto Rodríguez and that the process ended with the withdrawal of the seat held by Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Congress. The criminal court criticized Belarra's words against her companions but understood that she had not entered the field of the Penal Code.
The case of these two Aragonese activists did not go through the Supreme Court. Both the court and the Provincial Court and the Constitutional Court understood that some of their criticisms of the judicial resolution were acceptable but that others constituted a criminal personal and professional attack against the magistrate who had resolved the case of the license to open a clay mine .
According to the Teruel Court, the right to criticism protected, for example, the darts that the letter launched against the judge's decision to give more or less to the experts or the accusation of leaving aside technical issues of the case, but the crime according to the judges was based on imputing to the judge "ignorance, impartiality or injustice, which fully affect the ultimate core of the dignity of the injured party, not only because it supposes the worst opprobrium that can be preached of who is exercising judicial functions, but also because imputes conduct that, for a judge, could constitute a crime.
The case reached the Constitutional Court, whose first section carried out a sentence in 2015 with four votes in favor and two against to confirm the conviction. Judicial resolutions can be criticized, said the court of guarantees, but that letter caused damage "both to the professional honor of the judge to whom they are addressed and to confidence in justice, that is, in judicial impartiality that is always presumed that cannot be publicly questioned without suitable data or arguments to justify such serious accusations".
The sentence was not peaceful and there were two private votes. Conservative Andrés Ollero, for example, explained that judges do not have "privileged protection as members of the Judiciary, but rather the lighter one attributed to public figures." In another private opinion, the progressive Juan Antonio Xiol pointed out that "the letter does not contain at all rude and gratuitous disqualifications regarding which public opinion cannot take an informed position."
The case was also not resolved unanimously in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but most of the members of the room opted to declare that the sentence had violated the freedom of expression of the two spokespersons of the association. Spain defended before the ECHR that it was necessary to protect the Judiciary from baseless attacks, and the European court replied: "This cannot have the effect of prohibiting individuals from expressing their opinions, through value judgments with a factual basis sufficient, on matters of public interest related to the functioning of the judicial system".
The judge in question, said Strasbourg, is part of a "basic institution of the State, therefore being subject to broader limits of acceptable criticism than other citizens." The sentence, settled by the ECHR, was "disproportionate" and constituted a "disproportionate interference in the exercise of his right to freedom of expression, therefore not being necessary in a democratic society."