YESTERDAY, the Constitutional Court in Madrid handed down sentences for the arcane offence of "sedition". Those sentences were so severe that even the most trenchant critics of the Spanish legal system were shocked. Elected politicians given up to 13 years in jail for organising peaceful protests and for carrying out a democratic mandate to organise a democratic vote. How can we explain those sentences, in a democratic country, in Europe, in the 20th century? Quite simply, the legal system has been has never quite thrown off the legacy of Franco. It maintains the presence of extreme political forces inside the system and this was evident the trial. At least seven key witnesses, judges and legal counsel at the trial were either former supporters of the dictatorship or have close family ties to the Franco dynasty. These sentences demonstrate the political extremism at the heart of the Spanish justice system.

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Part of the Franco legacy is the legal system’s inability to deal with any criticism of the state itself. Sedition is an offence that was invented in the 16th century Courts of Europe to assuage the paranoia of not-yet-fully-formed democratic state. In Britain, as in most European countries, the offense of sedition no longer exists. Yet in Spain, the paranoid logic of sedition is drawing a growing number of political dissenters and protestors into the criminal justice system. Three weeks ago, a good friend of ours, Inaki Rivera, a Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Barcelona, was brought in front of a court in Barcelona and accused of a criminal offence. Inaki Rivera is the coordinator of a project that monitors human rights in prisons. His accusers, the Spanish Prison Officers Association, alleged that his condemnation of torture and ill-treatment in Spanish prisons was a crime because it put prison officers at risk. In other words, Inaki remains accused of a crime just for doing his job as a human rights monitor. This is the type of accusation that we might expect academics to face only in the most authoritarian of regimes. Inaki is by no means the only one to experience this Kafkaesque logic in which the state is so intolerant of criticism that criticism of the state becomes a crime itself. He is one of a growing number of people charged for offences like "hate crimes against the police!" An increasing number of comedians, artists and singers have been sentenced to imprisonment in recent years for "offences against the Crown." In the same week our friend Inaki was summonsed to court, nine non-violent pro-independence activists were arrested in a Guardia Civil raid and accused of terrorism. We should be vigilant about the rounding up of the left independence movement on similar charges in the coming weeks.

The paranoid logic of sedition is not just a Catalan issue. Three weeks ago, 47 lawyers, doctors, psychologists and left political activists from the Basque Country were forced into a plea bargain that saw 20 year sentences for terrorism reduced to two years. Some of those convicted were lawyers who had been arrested while defending their clients in court. Spain’s justice system is twitching with deeply political reflexes that increasingly resemble the spitting, clawing and hissing of a wounded and cornered cat. The problem is that Spain is a wounded cat that still has a politicised legal establishment on its side; a legal establishment that never completely severed the political and judicial branches of the state after the Franco years. And it is paying the price now for its partial transition to democracy. This is why the judicial extremism that never left the Spanish justice system is now baring its claws.

Ignasi Bernat is an academic sociologist and social movement activist based in Barcelona David Whyte, is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool