Case Watch: Challenging Police Abuse in Spain
By Cristina de la Serna
In "Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.
Beauty Solomon was already on the outside of mainstream Spanish society when she started having trouble with the local police on the island of Majorca. As a black African woman, living legally as a migrant but also working as a prostitute, she was particularly exposed to the risks of harassment.
Then, in July 2005, two police officers approached her on the street where she and other women were working. They asked for her identity card; then they told her to leave the area, which she did. However, she returned later to the same location, where she was again accosted by the two officers. This time, she tried to run away, but the officers caught up with her, hit her on the left thigh and the wrists with a truncheon and again asked for her I.D. card, saying “puta negra, vete de aquí” (“black bitch, go away from here”). One week later, the same two police officers stopped her again; they questioned her and one of them again hit her with a truncheon on her hand. In both incidents, Beauty Solomon was the only woman in the area who was stopped and told to go away by the police officers. Other sex workers who looked European were left in peace.
This is one of the 612 cases of ethnic discrimination documented by the ACODI (acción contra la discriminación) project in Spain, which was organized by a partnership of Women’s Link Worldwide, the Open Society Justice Initiative, SOS Racismo Madrid and other Spanish civil society groups. The final ACODI Report noted that most of the cases documented did not lead to any official complaints or legal action against the police, reflecting the victims’ fears of possible retaliation or other consequences.
But Beauty Solomon proceeded to file two criminal complaints against the police over her treatment, with the help of Médicos del Mundo and Women’s Link Worldwide. Her case included medical reports verifying the injuries claimed, and witness testimony. The Spanish Courts dismissed her claims on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of a criminal offence having been committed.
After exhausting domestic legal remedies, Solomon took her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, alleging that the Spanish government had violated Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention of Human Rights by not properly investigating her complaints of police abuse. She also argued that she had been the victim of discrimination, in violation of Article 14, given the racist comments of the police and the failure to investigate her complaints, arguing also that this discrimination reflected disproportionate interference in her private life, given the fact that other non-African women had been left undisturbed.
In its decision [document in French only], announced on July 24, the court unanimously ruled that Spain had violated both articles, finding that Spain had indeed failed to investigate and remedy the police assault as required.
On the question of discrimination, the court concluded that the Spanish authorities and the domestic courts had failed to explicitly investigate the racist nature of the police assault on Beauty Solomon. Importantly, the court emphasized that “the domestic courts did not consider the specific vulnerability of the claimant, inherent to her condition as an African woman practicing prostitution”.
This ruling marks a significant step forward in the court’s thinking on the question of discrimination, in that it specifically refers to the vulnerability of a Nigerian black prostitute because of her ethnic origin, gender and social status. This is the first time the court has referred to multiple discrimination of this nature.
Since the Beauty Solomon case was only one of the several hundred similar cases documented by the ACODI report, the ruling implies more broadly that the Spanish authorities need to do more to respond to police mistreatment of others in similarly vulnerable positions, if it is to properly meet its obligations under European human rights law.
Regrettably the court declined to rule on the question of whether Beauty Solomon had been singled out for police attention because of her ethnicity—subjecting her to the kind of ethnic profiling that studies by the Justice Initiative and others have shown is an endemic problem with policing in Spain, as well as in other European countries. The court argued that this question had been adequately covered by its findings on the first element of her discrimination claim.
The court awarded Beauty Solomon €30,000 in damages, vindicating the bold stand she took in confronting both the discrimination and the abusive treatment she suffered. The ruling is a testament to either the courage of Beauty Solomon in standing up to police abuse, the commitment of a group of human rights lawyers and to the role of the court in protecting the rights of people across Europe, including the most vulnerable.