Spanish court backs right to protest after Madrid violence

MADRID Thu Oct 4, 2012 11:49am EDT

A protester is dragged away by a police officer after the police charged demonstrators outside Spanish parliament in Madrid, September 25, 2012. REUTERS/Susana Vera

A protester is dragged away by a police officer after the police charged demonstrators outside Spanish parliament in Madrid, September 25, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Susana Vera

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MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish court on Thursday threw out a police case against the organizers of a protest in Madrid last week that ended in violence and dozens of arrests, saying people had a right to express their opinion.

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have taken to the streets in almost daily protests against spending cuts.

Most are peaceful. But last Tuesday's demonstration in Madrid, promoted through social networking sites by activist groups, turned violent with youths clashing with police after thousands of people formed a human chain around parliament.

Thirty-five people were arrested and 64 people hurt as police used rubber bullets and truncheons to clear the crowds.

Judge Santiago Pedraz dismissed the case filed by police after taking statements from seven of the eight detainees who had organized the "Surround the Congress" protest. None had been charged.

"The defense of ideas or doctrines cannot be prohibited, no matter how far they stray from or question the constitution," the court ruling said.

About 100 people gathered near the High Court to show support for the organizers, some holding placards with slogans such as "No Repression" and "We will fight without violence for dignity".

"He asked us if our intention was to prevent parliament from working normally and if we wanted to occupy the building. We said clearly that was not the case," one of the organizers told reporters after leaving the court.

Debate about the right to protest has intensified in Spain with the centre-right ruling People's Party saying the laws on protests are too permissive.

The protesters, ranging from miners to civil servants and teachers, oppose tough spending cuts implemented by the government as it veers towards an international bailout. The unrest is bad news for the Spanish government as it tries to convince investors that the country is stable.

The Interior Ministry has opened an investigation into police brutality in Madrid's Atocha train station during the protest last week. The High Court is also due to question the 35 people arrested.

The government has been alarmed by the increasingly violent nature of protests and the number of people taking part.

"It has to change. We can't have 10 protests in the same area of Madrid in one day," People's Party (PP) politician Cristina Cifuentes told national radio.

The head of the Madrid regional government, Ignacio Gonzalez, also from the PP, also said changes were necessary to stop the capital from being "in a constant state of collapse".

Opposition parties, including the Socialists who were in power until last November, opppose any changes to the law that impinge on people's rights.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Paul Hanna, Additional reporting and writing by Clare Kane; Editing by Sonya Dowsett and Angus MacSwan)

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