On September 18, 2019, a court summoned University of Barcelona law professor Iñaki Rivera to testify as part of a criminal investigation into a televised interview he gave regarding prison conditions in Spain’s Catalonia region. The investigation arises out of a complaint filed by a union representing penitentiary workers who have accused Rivera of slander.
Rivera is a professor of criminal law and the director of the Observatory of the Penal System and Human Rights (OSPDH) and the System for the Register and Report of Institutional Violence (SIRECOVI) at the University of Barcelona. Rivera’s work for the OSPDH and SIRECOVI centers around the systemic reform of the Catalan penal system. Both OSPDH and SIRECOVI monitor human rights abuses and institutional violence in Catalan prisons, conducting routine visits to prisons throughout the region. Since 2004, Rivera has reportedly been subjected to harassment and threats in retaliation for his research and advocacy regarding Catalonia’s prisons.
During a November 29, 2018, interview on the public television program “Tots es meu” (Everything moves) Rivera condemned human rights violations in the Catalan prison system. The TV3 program documented a prison reform movement seeking to uphold and defend the human rights of Catalan prison inmates, mobilized by the inmates’ relatives. During the program, a relative of a female prisoner who died in solitary confinement spoke of the physical and psychological mistreatment such prisoners suffer. Rivera described prisoners’ allegations of torture and other violence that his team was investigating, as well as outdated prison regulations and cases filed against Spain by the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture and the Council of Europe.
Shortly after the interview aired, a number of prison officials publicly denounced Rivera’s comments. He has reportedly been effectively barred from entering Catalan prisons.
On December 18, 2018, Comissions Obreres (CCOO), a trade union representing penitentiary workers, filed a complaint accusing Rivera of slander in connection with the comments; three more unions have reportedly filed similar complaints. The complainants allege that his comments about torture in Catalan prisons disparage penitentiary workers. According to the NGO Front Line Defenders, Rivera has been offered preventive protection by Catalan police in light of the complaints and other public comments against him.
On September 18, Rivera was summoned to the Court of Instruction in Barcelona, which was considering a charge of slander based on CCOO’s complaint. According to the newspaper El Nacional, Rivera reiterated to the court the concerns about prison abuse he raised in the 2018 interview.
Rivera was scheduled to appear again in court on December 24, 2019. As of this report, there is no public information regarding the status of the investigation or court proceedings. If convicted of slander, Rivera may face up to two years in prison.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about a criminal investigation into a scholar in apparent retaliation for his peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and academic freedom — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Spain is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting or otherwise interfering with expressive activity, so long as it is peaceful and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, criminal investigations and prosecutions in connection with nonviolent expressive and academic activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.