By Chiara Castro: pOLITICAL Editor

Freedom of speech is something that people born and grown up in a democratic country often take for granted.  People get incarcerated, or worse, for their beliefs against authorities, monarchs or politicians all over the world, all the time.

Although these events may shock our privileged mind, they are often so far away that as quickly as they break into our daily routine they are forgotten.  But, how is it when it happens at our front door?  In a country that prides itself to be called a democracy?

This is the story of Pablo Hasél, a Spanish rapper, poet, and political activist that got arrested on the 16th of February to serve a nine-month prison sentence for glorification of terrorism and insulting the Crown.

His weapons have been his strong opinions conveyed in his songs and tweets, guilty for referring to banned guerrilla groups like the Basque ETA, comparing the authorities to Nazis and the former King Juan Carlos I to a mafia boss.

Yes, you read right. All this happened in Spain.

Pablo Hasél, real name Pablo Rivadulla Duró, was due to hand himself in voluntarily to the authorities.  He refused to comply the order, nor to find a political refuge outside the country.  Instead, the singer together with 50 supporters barricaded their selves in for 24 hours in the University of Lleida, the Catalan city from which he came.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be dictated on what to say, what to feel, and what to do,” the 32-year-old rapper wrote in a tweet few hours before the Mossos d’Esquadara police broke into the blockade and finally formalised his arrest.

“Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you,” he added in another message, “it’s time to say enough and take to the streets.”

The response to his outcry to defend the freedom of expression has not been long in coming.  Since the night of his arrest, a wave of protests have been flaming the streets of many cities across the country with thousands of citizens demonstrating their outrage against his sentence.

Pablo Hasél case also put under the spotlight other deeper issues, such as police violence, the need for reforms and the nation’s economic problem.  As Times reported, Spain has indeed the highest unemployment rate in the European Union.

The growing debate over the future of Spain’s parliamentary monarchy is another reason for citizens anger.  The crown has recently been the object of fiscal scandals, for which the former King Juan Carlos fled to the United Arab Emirates amid a corruption probe.

Demonstrators are also asking the release of the Catalan leaders who have been jailed following the independence referendum of 2017, which was labelled as illegal by the central power.

Peaceful rallies have degenerated in violence with some groups of protesters, mostly teenagers, destroying properties and violently clashing with police.  As El Pais reported, the first three nights of protests have caused between €400,000 and €500,000 of damage in the city of Barcelona alone.

Hundreds of rioters have already been arrested, amongst which many are minors.  Some police officers as well as demonstrators got injured, with a 19-year-old woman losing an eye during the clashes.

More than 200 artists, including the film director Pedro Almodóvar, have signed a petition in support of the Hasél case arguing that Spain is now on the top of the list of countries that have retaliated the most artists for the content of their songs.

“The imprisonment of Pablo Hasél makes even more evident the Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all public figures who dare to publicly criticise the actions of any of the state institutions,” they wrote.

“We are aware that if we allow Pablo to be jailed, tomorrow they could come after any one of us, until they have managed to stifle any whisper of dissidence.”

Pablo Hasél is not the first to be convicted for expressing his dissident opinions.  In 2018 Valtònic, another rapper, fled to Belgium for escaping a three and a half year sentence for insulting the monarchy in his songs.

The year before a Twitter user, Cassandra Vera, got accused with the same charges for making jokes online over the 1973 Eta’s terrorist attack that cost the life of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco.

Another case even involved a group of puppeteers purveying political satire. 

Ley mordaza

All this is the product of the controversial Security Law that came into force in 2015.  It bans speeches that glorify violence as well as insult religions and the monarchy. 

The vagueness in describing what constitute these crimes seems to be the main problem.

Typical scene of night gatherings.

“Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you,” he added in another message, “it’s time to say enough and take to the streets.”

Opponents argue that the infamous bill, nicknamed “gag law” (in Spanish Ley mordaza), has also been applied far too restrictively. 

The situation got even worse following the adoption of the 2017 EU’s counter-terrorism strategy.

In its annual report on the state of human rights in countries across the world published in 2018, Amnesty International criticised Spain for continuing to use the counter-terrorism legislation disproportionately.

“In many instances, authorities pressed criminal charges against people who had expressed opinions that did not constitute incitement to a terrorism-related offence and fell within the permissible forms of expression under international human rights law,” the report added.

A divided government

The recent events are also putting light on the internal divisions within the government.

The Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Party (PSOE) have strongly condemned the violence generated with the protests.  They also appear to back the parliamentary monarchy that Spain had since the end of Franco’s dictatorship, being the former king, who abdicated in favour of his son in 2014, actually appointed by Francisco Franco himself.

In contrast, their minor partner Unidas Podemos want to get rid of the monarchy.  They have also expressed their outrage over Pablo Hasél case, supporting the protests despite their violent turn.

Even though the coalition now said to be committed to reform the law, different points of view sparked amongst the two parties.

While Unidas Podemos’ proposal aims to eliminate several crimes, such as insulting the Crown or the glorification of terrorism, PSOE’s goal is to introduce milder penalties as well as create a framework to carefully judge these allegations as they affect citizens’ fundamental rights.

So far, no final date nor any more details have been disclosed to the public.

Pablo Hasél’s criminal record

Pablo Hasél is not new to the authorities.  His problems with the law started in 2015 when he was convicted for similar allegations to two years in prison.  Being his first sentence, he did not spend any time behind bars.

Between 2016 and 2020 he was also found guilty of resisting the police and assaulting a journalist during a press conference. He also got fined 25,000 euros for insults, libel and slander in some of his tweets.

All this led judges to dismiss the appeal for having his last term suspended.

After few days of his incarceration, the court also charged him of two-and-a-half year conviction for attacking a witness during a trial of another rapper accused with similar allegations.

From the Ponent prison in Lleida, where he will expiate the sentence, Pablo Hasél is still giving strength to the cause with his best medium: his art. 

“The streets are burning because the sad tears are tired

of not being furious gasoline,

because the party of their false democracy

is the funeral of our well-being

incinerated at the stake of their inquisition

for telling the truth in the kingdom of lies.”

These are the words coming from his last poem, written inside his prison cell few days after his arrest.  

While the EU is still worryingly silent over the events, Spaniards are not willing to stop fighting in the name of their rights.  Freedom of speech is precious and must be defended, whatever the cost.

MACKAYAN: pablo hasel case flames

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