Madrid — ''I have a right to call a lawyer.'' For years, Spaniards had heard the traditional request of the villain or innocent hero of American detective shows on television. But when Spaniards were arrested, especially under the Franco dictatorship, the same demand was met with sarcasm or laughter by Spanish police. Torture was the answer in many documented cases, even recently under the five-month-old Socialist government.
What most Americans take for granted is about to become law in Spain, possibly as early as this summer. Pending parliamentary debate and approval, all arrested persons will have the right to a lawyer.
Other rights that seem basic to most Western observers, such as habeas corpus (the right of an individual to know within a specified time what the charge against him is), are still being carefully studied by the Cabinet.
But before the new code goes into effect the Ministry of the Interior, which controls the police force, and the Ministry of Justice must reach an agreement. This is not so simple: Interior takes a dimmer view of liberalizing the penal code, and the two ministries disagree on such basic points as the accused's right to a lawyer and habeas corpus.
Under the new proposals - which are expected to pass the Cortes (parliament) easily - even suspected terrorists would be guaranteed the right to a lawyer. The court will assign a lawyer by lottery to defend a terrorist suspect. The lawyer must be present when the suspect makes any declarations. This is designed to prevent torture.
But bowing to Interior Ministry pressure, the new code will not allow terrorist suspects to have interviews with their lawyers after declarations. Suspected terrorists will be denied contact with anyone else. Justice Minister Fernando Ledesma considers the bill one of Europe's most progressive because the right to a lawyer cannot be renounced.
Habeas corpus, however, will be a whole new ball game between the Justice and Interior Ministries. At present, any suspect can be held for days without charge; antiterrorist laws allow a suspect to be held incommunicado for 10 days. If the new code is passed, all suspects will have the right to know the charges against them.
Socialist reformist zeal in justice doesn't end here. By the end of June, some 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners awaiting trial will be released without bail and granted provisional freedom. Approved by Congress April 25, the new legislation limits preventive detention. Before, a suspect could be detained for months or even years before standing trial. In some cases the preventive detention was even longer than the sentence ultimately handed down.
The modernization of Spain's 150-year-old penal code was passed by Congress, the lower house, April 28. Now awaiting only Senate approval, the proposed code reflects new societal attitudes toward the environment, the Roman Catholic Church, and drugs, among other things. For the first time, ecological abuse is a criminal offense. It is no longer a crime to insult the Catholic Church. Drug use was also decriminalized, while selling drugs is still a crime. The value of an object or the amount of money involved in a robbery are no longer the main consideration. Armed robbery is now more serious than unarmed theft.
Although there has been a gradual tendency to reduce military jurisdiction over civilians, the Socialists plan to leave this area of reform alone for the time being. There are some noticeable anachronisms. Civilians can still be tried for insulting or offending the armed forces, albeit by civilian courts.