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Police Ethnic Profiling Challenge Goes Before Spain’s Constitutional Court

NEW YORK—Spain’s highest court is being asked to back a legal challenge to the widely documented use of ethnic profiling by Spanish police, brought by a young man who was stopped for an identity check purely on the basis of the color of his skin. Zeshan Muhammad, a resident of Spain, was stopped in Barcelona by an officer of the National Police under suspicion of being in the country illegally, based upon his perceived skin color.

During the stop, the officer admitted that he would not stop a white person, and said the reason for the stop was because “you are black and that’s it.” Mr Muhammad filed a legal complaint arguing that stopping someone because of perceived skin color (a practice known as ethnic profiling) violates the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in Spain’s constitution and in numerous international treaties ratified by Spain.

The complaint challenged the unlimited powers granted by the law to the police and the lack of independent police oversight mechanisms, which is conducive to the pervasive existence of the practice of ethnic profiling, and sought a legal remedy for the victim.

However, an administrative High Court judge dismissed the complaint on the grounds of lack of evidence, despite a corroborating witness statement, the documented immediate and multiple attempts by the victim to claim a remedy at the earliest opportunity after the incident occurred. It also chose to disregard extensive documentation by both local and international observers of the practice of ethnic profiling in Spain.

Mr Muhammad, who has been stopped on two other occasions since, is now challenging the lower court ruling before Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal, with an appeal filed on June 30.

His case is the first legal challenge to ethnic profiling in Spain in 24 years. The previous case was filed in 1992 by Rosalind Williams, a U.S. born Spanish citizen; in response to that case, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in 2009 that “the physical or ethnic characteristics of the persons targeted should not be considered as indicative of their possibly illegal situation in the country,” and that ethnic profiling is discriminatory and illegal.

Despite this, it appears that official doctrine in Spain is based on the discriminatory assumption that Spanish nationals could only be white, a position outlined by the Constitutional Court in the Williams case in 2001, and which has yet to be overturned. This view was forcefully defended during Mr Muhammad’s High Court hearing by the state lawyer representing the Ministry of Interior.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: “Ethnic profiling by police violates basic principles of equality and has no place in an increasingly multiethnic country. We will continue to support Mr Muhammad’s effort to secure a remedy.”

The practice of ethnic profiling in Spain has been documented and condemned by the Spanish Ombudsperson’s office, as well as by domestic human rights organizations, and international human rights bodies (including the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism). A national survey published by the University of Valencia showed that ethnic minorities are disproportionately stopped by the police compared to whites. Recent reforms to an important law on urban policing, the ley de seguridad ciudadana, failed to include specific measures to address this unlawful discriminatory practice and comply with its international human rights obliagtions.

In addition to supporting legal challenges to police ethnic profiling in Europe, the Open Society Justice Initiative also supports civil society initiatives aimed at addressing police ethnic profiling through partnership with police. In Spain, this has included support to the Platform for Police Management of Diversity (Plataforma por la Gestión Policial de la Diversidad), a coalition of civil society organizations and the local police chiefs union, which has worked with a number of municipalities to implement pilot projects aimed at monitoring and reducing the occurrence of ethnic profiling.

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