European Rights Court Seeks Responses from Spain on Police Ethnic Profiling

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has instructed Spain to respond to a legal complaint from a young foreign resident who was told by Spanish police that he was being stopped for an identity check purely because of the color of his skin.

The case, Zeshan Muhammad v. Spain, focuses on an issue—racially-biased police checks—that continues to blight relations between police and minority communities across Europe. 

In a notice dated December 14, the Strasbourg-based court called on the Spanish government to respond to the claim that Muhammad’s treatment during a police stop in May 2013 breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

Muhammad, a resident of Spain since 2005, was stopped for an identity check by two police officers while he was walking with a friend on a street in Barcelona. During the incident, one of the officers 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.”

When he objected, Muhammad was slapped by one of the officers and taken to a police station where he was given an administrative for having refused to identify himself, for “lack of respect towards the authority,” and for “showing a cocky attitude.”

Muhammad’s efforts to bring a legal challenge over the incident in Spain were ultimately rejected by the country’s top constitutional court, despite the principle of non-discrimination being enshrined in Spain’s constitution, and in numerous international treaties ratified by Spain. In a three-line decision, the court concluded the case had "no constitutional relevance."

The applicant is represented before the ECHR by Mercedes Melon and James A. Goldston, lawyers from the Open Society Justice Initiative, with support from the Barcelona-based advocacy group, SOS Racisme Catalunya.

The Open Society Justice Initiative’s work on promoting fair and equitable policing in Europe has included litigation in France, Spain, and the UK, as well as research, advocacy, and the partnerships with both police and community groups.

In May last year, the Justice Initiative filed a separate application to the ECHR, Seydi and others v. Francein which six young men of African and Arab origin complained that they were subject to racially-discriminatory police stops while carrying out everyday activities, such as walking in the street, exiting a subway station, or talking with a friend. 

The Justice Initiative also represented Rosalind Williams, a U.S. citizen who in 2009 won a ruling from the UN Human Rights Committee that she had been subjected to a discriminatory and illegal police stop in Spain in 2002.

In Spain, the Justice Initiative supports 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.