Trial against the tenants' union: "The state is attacking us because it wants to protect the owners of the city". The prosecution is demanding three years in prison for union members Alpha Mikeliunas, Fran Ortega and Jaime Palomera for protesting an eviction.
Alpha Mikeliunas and Fran Ortega have lived in the Floridablanca street in Barcelona for 11 years. They have had conflicts over the property for more than a decade and have been subjected to property harassment. Next Monday they will be tried in the Judicial Center, charged with threats and coercion in protesting their eviction, along with the spokesman for the tenants' union, Jaime Palomera. The Public Prosecution Service demands three years in prison for them each and they come to the trial a few days before the trial Nacio Digital (Catalan news website, ed.) to discuss their case.
“Just as we were considering leaving the flat in 2018, we opened the letterbox and found an information sheet from the tenants' union,” Mikeliunas recalls. The Mas-Beya Fradera family owns the building and hadn't bothered to keep the flat in good condition. “The sewer pipes were broken, the pipes had more lead than allowed and there was a termite infestation,” he explains.
In the meantime, they had already succeeded in getting some tenants out of the building. The apartments for which they paid 700 euros rent per month were offered on real estate portals for 950 or 1,100 euros. “When we found the letter from the union in the mailbox, it became clear to us that leaving would not be the solution, but would probably mean getting in trouble with another landlord,” Mikeliunas says.
From that moment on, leaving was no longer an option for Ortega, although the challenge they faced was enormous. “Since 2007, a law had been passed that made it possible to report real estate harassment, but the big problem was having evidence. Thanks to the Alpha, who is very thorough, we got it,” he says. The collection, coupled with the mobilization with the union, made it possible to move forward.” The city council dug up the complaints we sent them from the drawer,” Ortega recalled. Six other residents followed in their footsteps, avoiding the process of gradual emptying of the block.
The case of Mikeliunas and Ortega has resulted in the city council fined the owner of 180,000 euros. In addition, the couple filed a claim for damages. At the same time, they were threatened with deportation. After they first complained about the conditions of the flat, the owner informed them that he would not renew the lease.
In this context, with the help of the tenants' union, we demonstrated in front of the Francis beauty institute, which is linked to the family who own the block. A protest that can now sentence them to three years in prison and which both the tenants and Palomera see as an attempt to suppress the tenant movement.
The victims, that's us
“The state is attacking us because it wants to protect the city's property owners,” Palomera says. “It is a politically motivated attack. We limit the privileges for speculators and this means they can't do what they want with housing," the spokesperson said. Palomera places the Mas-Beya Fradera family in the category of “genera” who control a significant portion of the Catalan capital's apartment buildings. “They see the tenants as an extension of their property and if you don't accept what they say they will throw you out of the house and criminalize your actions. They think they are above good and evil,” he argues.
Mikeliunas and Ortega lament the owner's attempt to turn the tables. “We are the victims of bullying,” they insist, urging the fine imposed by the city council on the family who own the property. “The charge and trial are yet another reprisal for us to leave the flat,” she said. “If they take away our right to protest, what are we left with?” he asks.
The defense strategy of the three, coordinated by lawyer Anaïs Franquesa, is to insist on the peaceful nature of the protest against the expulsion. They emphasize that the police report at the time did not mention any incident and assure that they have eyewitnesses from journalists and MPs who can confirm that there was no violence. However, the judge has so far refused to hear them in court.
What happens when leases expire?
Palomera calls the case a "set-up" and predicts a "boomerang effect". We will do our utmost and our response must be to make it clear to the prosecution that we will not give up the fight for our rights," he said. They want to set a precedent so that the housing movement cannot protest to stop evictions,” he says. The case is reminiscent of the case that ended with the acquittal of eight labor policy activists for occupying an office of the bank BBVA in 2017, for whom the Public Prosecution Service asked for two years in prison.
In the case of Mikeliunas and Ortega, it can reveal that there is a gap in tenant protections, which even price regulation has not been able to remedy. Both have always paid the rent, even when the contract was formally terminated, yet they were informed that they would not be renewed after they protested. “We invested 8,000 euros in the flat to make it habitable, and yet they can throw us out,” Mikeliunas complains.
“The big challenge is to align ourselves with our neighboring countries, such as France or Germany, where, when contracts expire, the social function of housing has priority and there has to be a justification to kick you out,” says Palomera. “That someone earns money with a flat doesn't seem a problem to me, but what I can't tolerate is greed,” Ortega concludes. He, Mikeliunas and Palomera will face a lawsuit Monday that could set a precedent in the suppression of the housing movement in Catalonia. On Monday, the Tenants' Union called for a demonstration in support of the three defendants in court and the case has already found international resonance. “It is a reprisal against human rights defenders,” said former UN housing rapporteur Leilaini Farha.