Instability in Catalonia worries authorities in Madrid after a sixth consecutive night of protests – escalating into riots – over the imprisonment of famous rapper Pablo Hassel.
Both the Spanish government and the Catalan regional government are talking about “vandalism”, and the two authorities are in contact to calm the passions. However, shoplifting was only part of the problem created by sending the 32-year-old rapper behind bars and intertwining the debate on freedom of speech with the political crisis in the Spanish province in 2017.
Last week’s events sparked controversy over a law that convicted dozens of people, but no one is as well known as Hassel. He is also a supporter of Catalan independence, which is why the government’s concern is growing at a time when elections have confirmed the majority of parties seeking secession from Spain in the parliament in Barcelona.
Dozens were arrested last night, and a hundred are approaching since the beginning of the demonstrations.
During the night, peaceful protests escalated into riots with hundreds of participants. Shops, including luxury ones, were looted, famous buildings (including the UNESCO Palace of Music) were damaged, and protesters built barricades of rubbish bins on the famous La Rambla pedestrian street. In recent days, police officers have been pelted with stones, bottles and other hard objects. According to local authorities, the damage amounts to a total of 900,000 euros.
Law from five years ago
Pablo Hassel was sentenced to nine months in prison for “glorifying terrorism and insulting the crown and state institutions.” The far-left rapper mentions banned groups in texts and Twitter posts, compares a court to the Nazis, and calls the abdicated King Juan Carlos a “mafia boss” and a “drunk tyrant.” He also accused his son Felipe VI, who sat on the throne after him, of a number of crimes.
The specific text that brought him to justice dates back to 2015. It was adopted by the government of Mariano Rajoy (the Conservative People’s Party) in 2015 and prohibits several things – praising violence, insulting religions and the monarchy . The government’s argument was that it would prevent armed groups such as the ETA Basque separatists from being praised. Critics say its use, which has condemned dozens of people, is a threat to free speech.
The rapper had several convictions for various acts, mainly related to freedom of speech (under another law from 2011 and two more – in 2017 and 2018) and the magistrates decided that the last (fourth) presupposes his imprisonment. In 2011, the court said that “hate speech” and phrases such as “I’m not saddened by the bullet in the back of your neck” do not fit within the scope of freedom of speech.
Pablo Hassel barricaded himself at a university in the Catalan city of Lleida, 150 km from Barcelona, in an attempt to escape from prison, but the building was stormed by police and the rapper was arrested.
Authorities promise change
The verdict against the rapper, known for his anti-systemic nature, raised the issue of freedom of speech. Following the riots, the debate escalated into a conversation about the actions of the country’s police after a woman lost an eye during clashes with police. Pablo Hassel also accused the police in his texts of using excessive violence against protesters and migrants.
Hundreds of celebrities, such as director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem, have backed a change in freedom of expression legislation and said the current equates Spain with Turkey and Morocco.
Last week, after a storm of public outrage, Spanish authorities announced a change in the law to prevent imprisonment in such cases and to prosecute only actions that “clearly involve creating a risk to public order and provoking violent behavior.” The reform is at an “early stage”, said cabinet spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero.
Hassel is far from the only such case. Rapper Valtonik, who promised bullets to right-wing politicians and a gallows for the king, was imprisoned in 2018 but fled to Belgium. Cassandra Vera, a Twitter user, also received such a sentence, simply because she joked about the murder of the second person in the Francisco Franco regime, the assassination attempt against ETA.
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