The case is linked to a political stunt by members of Spain’s far-right Vox party, who unfurled a large Spanish flag on the rock that looms over the UK overseas territory in southern Spain. Juan Ignacio Mínguez, one of those involved in the stunt on June 20, was detained by Gibraltar police before being sent back to his country.
According to a three-page preliminary decision by the Spanish investigating judge, Mr Mínguez claims to have been detained for “seven hours during which he was denied the right to notify his arrest and place of detention” and held “without food and a toilet in dignified condition”.
The document also relates to the alleged maltreatment of Mr Mínguez’s lawyer, who says he was searched on two occasions and kept away from his client and under the watch of security officers for nine hours.
The probe is at an early stage and how far it will go remains unclear. But, for the moment, it adds a new dimension to a controversy that has vexed Britain and Spain for centuries. Madrid claims the peninsula as part of its sovereign territory, but this assertion has been habitually rebuffed by the UK and Gibraltar itself.
Mr Picardo issued a statement in response to the news, describing the legal proceedings as “frivolous and vexatious and a clear abuse of process”. They were also a “slur” on the Gibraltar police, prison services and courts.
Mr Picardo added: “I fully respect the Spanish courts and legal system and will therefore not lose a moment’s sleep over this case. Lawyers will be instructed to deal with this clear abuse of process.”
Ismael Moreno, the judge handling the case, argued that the treatment accorded to the two men could amount to torture and an attack on the moral integrity of the victim, as set out by Spain’s criminal code.
He therefore accepted the complaint for further investigation, and set out a series of procedural steps. Among other things, he asked Spain’s foreign ministry to spell out whether Mr Picardo enjoyed diplomatic immunity and whether he had a residence in Spain.
Judge Moreno last courted controversy when he decided to investigate two puppeteers earlier this year. The two men had staged a street play as part of a Madrid festival in which one of the glove puppets held up a sign featuring a wordplay on a well-known slogan of Eta, the Basque militant group.
The two men spent several days in prison after Judge Moreno concluded that they may have engaged in “glorification of terrorism”, a crime under Spanish law. They were eventually released, but the case sparked widespread indignation and accusations of judicial over-reach.