THE European Court of Human Rights has condemned Spain for the conviction of two young Catalan men who set fire to a picture of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia during a protest more than a decade ago.

In a unanimous ruling issued yesterday, the Strasbourg court ruled that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights in the case against Stern Taulats and Roura Capellera.

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They set fire to pictures of the royal couple in Girona in December 2007, when a group of people had gathered in front of the town hall protesting about a visit to the city by Juan Carlos.

The court found the act “had been part of a political, rather than personal, critique of the institution of monarchy in general and in particular of the Kingdom of Spain as a nation”.

It described the act as one of those “provocative events” increasingly staged to attract media attention, and which went no further than using provocation to deliver a critical message “in the framework of freedom of expression”.

The seven judges added it had not constituted incitement to hatred or violence, and that the 15-month prison sentence – later replaced with fines of €2700 (£2396) each – amounted to interference with their right to freedom of expression

They said the event had been part of a debate on Catalan independence, an issue of general interest, the monarchic structure of the state and a critique of the king as a symbol of the Spanish nation.

“It had not been a personal attack on the King of Spain geared to insulting and vilifying his person, but a denunciation of what the king represented as the head and the symbol of the state apparatus and the forces which, according to the applicants, had occupied Catalonia – which fell within the sphere of political criticism or dissidence and corresponded to the expression of rejection of the monarchy as an institution.”

The judges dismissed Spain’s Constitutional Court view that the burning of a photograph had shown “their mode of expression had spilled over from the sphere of freedom of expression into that of hate speech and incitement to violence”. Nor had there been no incitement “to commit acts of violence against the king.

The court ordered Spain to pay Taulats and Capellera €2700 each in pecuniary damages and €9000 (£7988) each for costs and expenses.

Benet Salellas, the men’s lawyer, said in a statement: “The ruling makes it very clear that political criticism against the institutions of the state will never be a discourse of hatred. It is an amendment to the whole of the Spanish justice system.”

Meanwhile, Spain’s use of anti-terrorism legislation has been described as “a sustained attack on freedom of expression” by human rights group Amnesty International.

In a report yesterday, it said social media users, musicians, journalists and puppeteers had been prosecuted on the grounds of national security, which had had a “profoundly chilling effect”.

“Sending rappers to jail for song lyrics and outlawing political satire demonstrates how narrow the boundaries of acceptable online speech have become in Spain,” said Esteban Beltran, director of Amnesty International Spain.

“People should not face criminal prosecution simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking.

“Spain’s broad and vaguely-worded law is resulting in the silencing of free speech and the crushing of artistic expression,” she added.