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Spaniards refuse to be silenced despite new anti-protest law

Students and free speech defenders hit the streets of Madrid last week to protest two controversial new laws — one targeting students and the other dissent.

Spain’s “3+2” law, which shortens undergraduate degrees from four to three years and extends masters degrees from one to two years, was passed by the Spanish government in January — angering much of Spain’s students. In response, students and professors in Spain began a three-day strike on March 24 accompanied with protests attended by 85 percent of the Spanish education sector, according to the unions that organized the protests. The actions included blockades of highways and campus entrances in Madrid.

Back in January, Spain’s education minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, claimed that the law would cut costs and put Spain’s education system in line with the rest of Europe. “The four year undergraduate degree and one-year master’s system in Spain is very rare,” he told the Olive Press. “Moving the degree program inline with our European neighbors will save families all over the country a great deal of money.”

A recent study by Save The Children also showed that, between 2006 and 2013, the Spanish government’s investment in education dropped by about 10 percent, while household spending on education went up by about 30 percent. In light of this, many students and professors claim that the new law will only make higher education more expensive and decrease the value of an undergraduate degree.

While students marched through the streets on March 26, the Spanish parliament, largely controlled by the ruling conservative Popular Party, was busy passing the controversial Citizens’ Security Law, known as “la ley mordaza” or the “gag law,” which would make that very protest illegal and punishable by fine.

Under the “gag law,” which goes into effect on July 1, people can be given large fines for various protest activities without ever seeing a judge. Unauthorized demonstrations near nuclear plants, transport hubs, and other important infrastructure could land protesters fines of up to $650,000. Unauthorized demonstrations near government buildings, taking pictures of police officers during protests, failing to show ID to a police officer, and blocking government officials from enforcing administrative or judicial orders could also result in fines upwards of $30,000. Other provisions impose fines for “disrespecting” police officers and expanding the range of crimes defined as “terrorism.”

Luis Aznar, one of the Popular Party politicians behind the law, told AFP that “there are uncontrolled and anti-system groups that take advantage” of the old system and that the new law would help crackdown on protesters prone to violence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, also from the Popular Party, has defended the legislation as well.

In contrast, a poll conducted by Metroscopia in December found that over 80 percent of Spaniards were in favor of either softening the law or getting rid of it altogether. Opposition leaders and human rights organizations have also criticized the law. “The entire spirit of the law is repressive,” Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Socialist Party member, told AFP. “This is a vision of the critical citizen as a dangerous citizen, who causes trouble.”

Amnesty International condemned it as an “assault that targets rights and freedoms of Spanish citizens, migrants and refugees,” while Human Rights Watch told AFP that the laws “unjustifiably curtail basic human rights protections.”

“I am deeply concerned that this will have a chilling, stifling effect on demonstrations, especially spontaneous ones,” Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik, told Newsweek. “In one fell swoop, Spain is stifling freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Despite this climate of political repression, Spaniards have continued hitting the streets and have also protested against the anti-protest law. On Thursday, members of Greenpeace stood outside the Spanish parliament in Madrid with gags over their mouths and T-shirts denouncing the law.

On Friday, dozens of people from various activist groups, human rights organizations and NGOs, using the hashtag #RespondemosALaMordaza, which means “We Respond To The Gag,” occupied the parliament building with signs, T-shirts, and blue gags over their mouths.

The highlight of the protest, organized by the group No Somos Delito, or We Are Not Crime, was an outburst of song by activists inside the lower house of the Spanish parliament. Accompanied by instruments and clapping onlookers, they sang “cuando el pueblo alza su voz, nadie lo puede detener,” meaning “when the people raise their voice, no one can stop it!”