Proscription, the listing of some groups or organizations as terrorists, has become a crucial counterterrorism initiative adopted by liberal democratic governments. Despite the criticism proscription has caused due to it occurring at the discretion of individual states, it has proved to be an effective preventative strategy.
Since the banning of the far-right National Action in the United Kingdom in 2016, other countries have followed suit. In Germany, groups like Combat 18 and Citizens of the Reich have been proscribed as terrorists. Canada has done the same with Combat 18, Blood and Honor, Three Percenters, Aryan Strikeforce and the Proud Boys.
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Spain has also designated particular organizations as terrorists. Their legal prosecution has affected the nature and activity of the far right at the national level.
Hate and Radicalization in Spain
In 2017, the educational SM foundation launched a study on the behaviors and attitude of Spanish millennials. The study unveiled the increasing ideological radicalization of that generation, as one in five young individuals (out of a total sample of 1,250) supported either the extreme left or right.
Four years later, Spain witnessed an anti-Semitic speech delivered in front of 300 attendees at an event held at the Almudena cemetery in Madrid to commemorate the Division Azul (Blue Division), a group of 14,000 young men who fought for Adolf Hitler in World War II. Torn between bewilderment and outrage, Spaniards wondered about the speaker but also about the speech.
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The inflammatory speech was given by Isabel Medina Peralta, an 18-year old history student, member of the Francoist party La Falange (The Phalanx) and a self-described fascist and national-socialist. Her comments are currently being investigated by the prosecution office in Madrid as a hate crime.
Medina’s case is just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem: the increasing presence and relevance of extremist groups in Spain. That increase has been partly driven by a growing sense of dissatisfaction toward the political elites and rising immigration, with the subsequent perception of economic and cultural threat this may represent.
It is such factors that, in turn, facilitated the relative success of far-right parties like Vox, which was founded in 2013 and holds 52 seats at Spain’s Congress of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. Spain has ceased to be an “exception” among European countries that have witnessed the steady growth of right-wing radicalism since the mid-2010s.
Spanish law does not condemn any display of Nazi and fascist symbology unless it is related to criminal behavior. In other words, it does not punish the display of extremist symbols unless they are accompanied by active conduct. It is criminal actions and messages that allow for law enforcement to get involved, rather than the use of symbols. The mere display does not make the act a crime. The only exception to this is Law 19/2007 of July 11 against violence, xenophobia, racism and intolerance at sporting events. The law states that the display of Nazi symbology could lead to a fine of up to €3,001 ($3,400) and a six-month ban from attending any sporting event.
However, there are some existing laws in Spain that could be used to enable the proscription of extremist groups. For example, the Spanish penal code, specifically Article 510, states that those who publicly encourage, promote or incite hatred, hostility, discrimination or violence against a group because of their ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual identity will be “punished with a prison sentence of one to four years and a fine of six to twelve months.” This also applies to those who produce or disseminate material that encourages, promotes or incites violence against groups.
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Article 510 also allows the prosecution of those who publicly deny, trivialize or extol genocide and other crimes against humanity. Article 515 of the Spanish penal code could also be applied in prosecution and proscription processes. Section 4 of this article, in particular, states that associations or groups are punishable if they promote discrimination, hatred or violence against people, groups or associations by reason of their ideology, religion or beliefs, ethnicity or gender.
Where the Spanish penal code would not be enough to proscribe an extremist group, the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court may be employed. Article 7 on crimes against humanity specifically indicates that a group may be prosecuted under international law if it is responsible for the persecution of a community or collective based on political, racial, national, ethnic, culture, religious, gender or other grounds. When inciting, promoting or motivating such persecution, international law should be applied as a preventative measure.
Organized Extremism in Spain
Proscription in Spain began with the dissolution of the neo-Nazi organization Sangre y Honor (Blood and Honor) by Spanish judges, who condemned 15 of the 18 defendants to prison terms of up to three and a half years. Several extremist groups remain active in Spain today.
Democracia Nacional, a far-right party founded in 1995, is one example. Its current leader, Alberto Bruguera, and 14 other members of the party have been accused by the special public prosecutor on hate crimes for attacking a mosque in Barcelona’s Nou Barris neighborhood in 2017. The prosecutor has requested a 10-year sentence for its leader. The party’s vice-president, Pedro Chaparro, has also been accused of threatening photojournalist Jordi Borras in 2015.
Alianza Nacional is another problematic group. In 2013, a judge in Vilanova i la Geltru, a city in Catalonia, sentenced three leaders of the organization to two and a half years in prison due to the dissemination of Nazi ideology online. Their message spread hatred against black and Latinx groups as well as immigrant communities and liberal multiculturalism. They blamed these groups for taking the jobs of Spaniards, along with fostering the use, abuse and trafficking of drugs, amongst other crimes.
Hogar Social is a neo-Nazi group that is well known for its campaigns to collect and share food “only for Spaniards” as well as to squat in buildings. Some of its members have been prosecuted and were due to be judged in December 2021 for inciting hatred and attacking a mosque in March 2016 after a terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium. They face potential sentences that range from one to four years in prison. The leader of Hogar Social, Melisa Jimenez, was arrested in 2020 and later released for attacking the Socialist Party headquarters and displaying resistance to authorities.
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Bastion Frontal is a neo-Nazi group related to the French organization Social Bastion. It was established during the COVID-19 pandemic in the working-class neighborhood of San Blas in Madrid. The group claims to have around 100 active members who are between the ages of 15 and 25. The creation of Bastion Frontal was mainly triggered by the decay of Hogar Social and the rise of VOX, but it does not identify with the latter due to it being a constitutionalist party. Instead, Bastion Frontal aims to abolish the Spanish Constitution. Although its members claim to have a physical headquarters, Bastion Frontal’s presence is mainly online. The prosecutor’s office in Madrid has filed a complaint against the group because of hate crimes due to its threats against unaccompanied minors from Africa, including Morocco.
Spanish society has been going through a process of polarization, which has been pointed out by academics and civil society actors. The situation, as scholars have mentioned, has remarkably worsened during the pandemic, mainly due to the amount of time people have spent in front of their screens. In particular, young adults are amongst the most vulnerable. In this context, isolationism and echo chambers have further contributed to the strengthening of an already growing extreme right.
Spain’s practice of prosecuting after crimes against human rights have been committed is only a relatively effective strategy, as it focuses on the individual rather than on the social, economic and ideological networks that the individual relied upon to carry out the violence.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]