efe-epaStrasbourg (France)

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ruled that Spanish courts had wrongfully fined and sentenced two people to prison terms for publicly burning a picture of the country's ex-monarch and his spouse, a penalty that it said was a disproportionate interference into the defendants' freedom of expression.

In July 2008, Enric Stern and Jaume Roura, both from the northeastern region of Catalonia, were sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 2,700 euros ($3,330) each by the Spanish national court for insulting the Crown _ which constitutes a felony in Spain _ by burning a large-sized upside-down picture of former King Juan Carlos I and his consort, Queen Sofia, during the royal couple's visit to the Catalan city of Girona.

The ECHR unanimously decided that the Spanish state had violated Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights that establish freedom of thought, conscience and expression, and ordered that the defendants be reimbursed the amounts they had paid in fines in addition to 9,000 euros in compensation for their legal expenses and fees.

The international court noted that the defendants' actions fell within the framework of political _ rather than personal _ criticism of the monarchy in general and, in particular, of the Kingdom of Spain as a nation, which amounted to political criticism or dissent and corresponded to the expression of rejection of the monarchy as an institution.

"An act of this type must be interpreted as the symbolic expression of dissatisfaction and protest," the court said.

"The staging orchestrated by the applicants in the present case, although having resulted in the burning of an image, is a form of expression of an opinion in the context of a debate on a matter of public interest, namely: the institution of the monarchy," it added, rejecting the notion that burning the image could reasonably be regarded as an incitement to hatred or violence.

While Stern and Roura did not end up entering prison _ as in the Spanish legal system, sentences under two years and one day are generally not enforced when the defendants lack prior convictions _ they were warned at the time by the national court that they would go to jail if they failed to pay their fines.

Both defendants took their case to the ECHR after Spain's constitutional court rejected their appeal.

They alleged that burning pictures was within their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 and challenged the applicability of Spain's lèse-majesté laws that protect the monarch from being insulted by his subjects.

The Spanish government, meanwhile, argued that the penalties were necessary in a democratic society as the two citizens used speech that supposedly incited violence and hatred.

Stern and Roura have now been proven right, a decade later, by the Council of Europe's top human rights court.