What’s going on with Pablo Hasél and the riots in Spain?

Photography by J. Martin courtesy of Getty

The rapper’s arrest has provoked civil unrest across the country.

The last week has seen violent demonstrations in several Spanish cities, notably Barcelona and Madrid, after the Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél was arrested by police. It’s a case that’s also inspired fierce debate around free speech in Spain.

In 2018, Hasél was found guilty of glorifying terrorism in his lyrics and on social media, and of insulting the Spanish Crown and State institutions. He was sentenced to jail.

Earlier this month, a court gave him 10 days to voluntarily enter prison to serve a nine-month sentence, which Hásel refused, leading to his arrest last week. Hasél, born Pablo Rivadulla Duró, was arrested by the Catalan police on February 16th in the University of Lleida, a town some 150km from Barcelona, after students had tried (non aggressively) to prevent them from making the arrest.

Hasél’s cause has been taken up by prominent Spanish cultural figures including director Pedro Almodóvar, actor Javier Bardem and folk singer Joan Manuel Serrat, who all signed a petition demanding his release.

As a rapper, Hasél has an extensive discography which dates back to 2005. His politically provocative songs include Juan Carlos el Bobón, which attacks the Spanish royal family, notably Juan Carlos I, who abdicated in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe VI. The song’s lyrics include A la cárcel van los pobres y no la infanta Cristina, pero medio país le desea la guillotina”, which roughly translates as The poor go to jail but not the Infanta Cristina, although half the country want her on the guillotine”. Infanta Cristina is the youngest daughter of Juan Carlos I, and she was acquitted of fraud and corruption in 2013. Another lyric from the song goes Juan Carlos el Bobón, capo mafioso saqueando el reino español” (“Juan Carlos el Bobón, a mafia boss looting the Spanish kingdom”). Here, Hasél plays on words of Borbon”, the family name of Juan Carlo I, and bobo”, which means idiot”. The Spanish Supreme Court claims that these lyrics are insulting and slanderous, going beyond mere criticism of the royal family and exceeding the right to freedom of expression.

But Hasél’s music was only one factor in his arrest: Spanish prosecutors based their case on both song lyrics and 64 tweets Hásel had written, in which he allegedly mentioned Basque separatist group ETA and GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre, or The First of October Anti-Fascist Resistance Groups), as well as making references to the Spanish Royal family and Spanish police. Hásel has also previously been arrested for other infractions, including allegedly attacking a witness in a trial against a police officer and spraying washing-up liquid at a journalist from Catalan TV station TV3.

Hasél’s case has touched a raw nerve in Spain. There’s a lot of tension between Catalonia and the Spanish central government, following the jailing of several leaders of the Catalan independence movement for their role in 2017’s independence referendum, a vote that Spain did not consider legal. Support for Catalan independence reached a record high of 48.7 per cent in October 2017, with the Spanish royal family widely seen in Catalonia as a symbol of Madrid’s centralised rule. Barcelona, the Catalan capital, has seen the most widespread protests during the past week, although there have been demonstrations in Madrid, Valencia and many smaller Catalan towns.

The case has also reignited debate around freedom of speech in Spain, after another rapper, Valtònyc, was convicted of similar crimes to Hasél in 2018. He fled to Belgium, where he remains to this day, and like Hasél’s, his case has become a cause célèbre among Spanish artists.

In 2015, the Spanish government (then led by the centre right PP) introduced a hugely controversial public security law, known as the gag law” among critics, which cracked down on both the right to assemble and freedom of expression.

Amnesty International called Hasél’s jail sentence unjust and disproportionate”, with Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International Spain, releasing a statement in which he said, No one should face criminal prosecution only for expressing themselves on social media or for singing something that may be distasteful or shocking.”

Demonstrations in many Spanish cities have become violent, with demonstrators burning bins and throwing objects at police, and police firing foam rounds. Saturday night’s protest in Barcelona saw looting in a number of shops in the high-end Passeig de Gràcia, while windows were broken at the historic Palau de la Música concert hall. One young woman has lost an eye as a result of police firing foam projectiles in Barcelona.

The case has also caused a division in the Spanish coalition government of PSOE and Podemos, the left wing party that grew out of the anti-austerity movement in Spain. Podemos has denounced Hasél’s conviction, while Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister and PSOE leader, has remained conspicuously silent on the matter.

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