Judge Santiago Vidal: freedom on trial

I have been following in astonishment the trial against judge Santiago Vidal. I would be lying if I said that I never thought that the State could go this far. But I didn’t think it would do so at the expense of losing so much credibility nor with the unexpected support of those who prefer to focus on the minor aspects of the matter.

I say so because all this week I have been reading comments about the goodness --or evil-- of the judge’s initiative to draft a Catalan constitution. These comments come mixed with observations about what is happening to the judge within Spain’s General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). All in all, it appears that it is Mr Vidal who is losing out. Some say “what a silly idea”. Others add that “he shouldn’t have been so naive”. They all seem to agree that “he knew the risks involved”. Commentators remark on the argument of poor timing when drafting such a document before we even have an openly secessionist parliament. The judge and his colleagues have also been accused of taking on a role that is not theirs to begin with, which means that their draft challenges the democratic quality of the process to some extent.

I am gobsmacked by all of it. In Catalonia we put well-meaning people on trial by the media for spending some of their free time and using their knowledge to further the theoretical base of the independence process. I find it shocking, more so when --wittingly or not-- they are throwing Mr Vidal into the arms of his inquisitors. Clearly, the whole thesis orchestrated by those who point fingers is based on a single fundamental idea: the judge’s freedom of conscience and, therefore, its exercise through a private activity, is limited by the political views of the CGPJ. In other words, upholding the Constitution and the law is not enough; being an exemplary public servant in the field that he trained for and having been appointed after meeting all the requirements are not enough. His impeccable track record, as noted by the CGPJ themselves, is not enough. Besides all that, judge Vidal must follow political views that he does not share but are held by most members of the CGPJ. In fact, it is as if judges were bound by a dual constitutional oversight simply because of their occupation. Like all Spanish citizens (whether we like it or not), judges are expected not to break the law. But, as we have recently learnt, judges must also follow the ideological guidelines of a few individuals who, in my opinion, are clearly ignoring the boundaries of their job for political reasons.

Whether the draft written by Vidal and his colleagues is a good one or not, is a different matter altogether. The point is not whether it can make a positive contribution to the process or whether the work completed in their spare time may or may not be taken into account by a future constitutional convention. All that is beside the point, at the moment. It is secondary and untimely because the matter at hand is a different one. The debate should be about the limits we set on the invasion of the personal freedom of those of us who hold public office and say out loud that Catalonia has a right to become an independent nation, regardless of whether we are judges, teachers, councillors, doctors, lawyers or clerks.

Therefore, we cannot allow our freedom to be put on trial. It is a red line that cannot be crossed. If we lower our heads as if saying “what did you expect? We all knew it would end like this”, we become accessories to this attack on freedom.

As with all Spaniards, our freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution, the European treaties that Spain has signed and the UN’s Charter of Human Rights.

This is what is at stake in the case of judge Santiago Vidal and, therefore, we cannot afford to have a lukewarm stance on the matter. In fact, I am certain that many well-meaning Spaniards who feel that way will support Mr Vidal like we should. Not because they are Catalan nationalists, but because they love freedom of conscience.

Some other time we will examine to what extent it is appropriate to criticise knowledgeable individuals who write constitutional drafts. Does anyone seriously think that the US constitution was not drafted and polished, time and again, before it was passed in Congress? Today we need to defend Santiago Vidal’s individual freedom without any qualms. Our own freedom is at stake.