Spain denies sacking police official in retaliation over coronavirus investigation

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain denied on Tuesday that it had sacked a senior police official as punishment for criticising the government during an investigation into a decision to approve a rally in March that may have helped spread the coronavirus.

A court is looking into the decision to hold the March 8 Women’s Day rally in Madrid, which was allowed to go ahead just days before Spain went into lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. Some epidemiologists say the rally played a major role in spreading the virus, although the government disputes this.

On Monday, the minority left-wing administration removed the head of the Guardia Civil police in Madrid, Col. Diego Perez de los Cobos.

El Pais daily reported that the police force had sent a report to the court, blaming government health emergency coordinator Fernando Simon for the decision to allow the rally. Opposition parties have accused the government of firing Perez de los Cobos in retaliation for that report.

At a news briefing, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska denied that the investigation played a role in the decision to replace Perez de los Cobos, which he described as a “a change of teams, a natural replacement process based on confidence.”

On Tuesday, the Guardia Civil second-in-command for all of Spain, Lt. Gen. Laurentino Cena, quit in protest over the sacking of Perez de los Cobos, saying the decision ignored the chain of command.

The opposition has called for the resignation of Grande-Marlaska for interfering in the investigation. They accused him of trying to paper over the issue by announcing a pay rise for police at his news briefing. The pay rise had been approved by the previous centre-right government.

“It is an insult to the Guardia Civil and to the rule of law that (Prime Minister Pedro) Sanchez covers the sacking of the person responsible for the investigation of the alleged March 8 offences with that pay hike,” tweeted Pablo Casado, head of the conservative People’s Party.

“We demand immediate responsibility,” he wrote.

Reporting by Belen Carreno and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Peter Graff