TERRORISM AND THE LAW

ETA terrorists poised to walk free after European court strikes down “Parot doctrine”

ECHR calls method of calculating sentences to keep criminals in jail “illegal detention”

Justice Minister Gallardón argues ruling "only affects the appellant" in this case

Spain's Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón (l) and Interior Minister Jorge Fernández-Díaz hold a joint news conference to discuss the ECHR ruling. / SUSANA VERA (REUTERS)

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has struck down Spain’s “Parot doctrine” – a legal way to ensure terrorists and other long-term convicts are not released significantly before the end of their terms.

In agreeing with an appeal against her prolonged stay in prison by convicted ETA terrorist Inés del Río, the Strasbourg court’s ruling released Monday means that 61 ETA prisoners and at least 14 common criminals could be released immediately. Seventy-six other Basque terrorists could benefit from the decision in the mid-to-long term, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry.

A spokesman for the court noted that the ruling is binding and that Spain has agreed to abide by it. He also said that although the ruling does not enter into an evaluation of other pending cases, it establishes that the retroactive nature of the Parot doctrine that extended Del Río’s jail term constitutes an “illegal detention.”

By unanimous decision the 17-member panel of the ECHR deemed that the decision taken by Spanish courts to keep Del Río in prison had violated Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the lawful detention of individuals. It also cited Article 7 which prohibits a “heavier penalty” from being imposed than at the time when a crime was committed. It also noted that Article 9 of the Spanish Constitution also bars laws from being applied retroactively.

THe ECHR ordered the government to “ensure that the applicant is released at the earliest possible date”

The Parot doctrine was introduced by the Supreme Court in 2006 to prevent criminals with long convictions from walking free early thanks to the 1973 Criminal Code, which allowed term reductions for participating in workshops and courses from the maximum prison term of 30 years. Instead, under the Parot doctrine, benefits are deducted from each of the counts on which the prisoner was convicted.

Del Río was sentenced to more than 3,000 years in jail for taking part in ETA’s so-called “comando Madrid” cell, and her role in 23 murders.

An ECHR spokesman said on Monday that the ruling is binding on Spain, that it sets legal precedent and that the Spanish authorities must accept and apply it. The retroactive application of the doctrine to keep Del Río in prison was in fact an “illegal detention” that contravened the European Convention on Human Rights, according to the court’s ruling.

The ECHR also ordered the government by 10 votes to seven to pay Del Río 30,000 euros in compensation and pay her 1,500 euros in costs.

The court noted that the Spanish courts’ departure from case law had delayed her release from prison by almost nine years. “She has, therefore, served a longer term of imprisonment than she should have served under the domestic legislation in force at the time of her conviction,” it said. The ECHR, by 16 votes to one, ordered the Spanish government to “ensure that the applicant is released at the earliest possible date.”

The penal chamber of Spain’s High Court is due to hold an extraordinary plenary situation to resolve the issue of Del Río’s release on Tuesday morning.

At a Monday afternoon news conference together with Interior Minister Jorge Fernández-Díaz, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón lamented the ECHR’s ruling. “We have used all the resources available in order for the doctrine to remain in place,” he said. “Someone who kills 20 people cannot have the same legal sentence as someone who committed only one murder.”

It will be the courts that determine how the sentence is applied”

Gallardón insisted that the application of the ECHR’s decision was up to the Spanish courts, specifically the High Court in the case of terrorists and the provincial courts in the case of common criminals. “The ruling affects only one person, Inés del Río. The decision regarding the application of the ECHR’s ruling is up to the Spanish courts. It’s not a government decision; it’s a legal one.”

The Popular Party (PP) justice chief said it was up to the Attorney General’s Office to study each case individually to determine whether the ECHR’s ruling should apply to other cases.

“It will be the courts that determine how the sentence is applied,” Fernández-Díaz echoed. “We have worked to defend a doctrine that is fair to the victims and extraordinarily useful in the fight against terrorism and the most abject of crimes,” he added.

Asked if the Strasbourg court’s ruling would help to bring about the eventual disbanding of ETA, which two years ago declared a “definitive end” to the use of violence, Fernández-Díaz said: “There is now a peace process when there was a war before. There are some terrorist killers and a society that has been the victim of terrorism. ETA has been defeated, and won’t come back. […] We are going to continue working for the definitive dissolution of ETA.”

The interior minister pointed to the recent operation by security forces against Herrira, a platform that supports ETA prisoners, in which 18 people were arrested.

Gallardón said the compensation the ECHR ordered the government to pay to Del Río would be covered by the compensation that the ETA terrorist should have paid to the victims of her crimes. Del Río declared herself insolvent. “The state advanced the compensation. It’s a debt the ETA member has incurred with the state.”

Ángeles Pedraza, the chairwoman of the AVT association of terrorism victims, said: “If the government complies with the ruling there will be protests.”

Fernández-Díaz said the government would meet today with Pedraza and her counterpart at the Terrorism Victims Foundation, Marimar Blanco.

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