A 33-year-old Rapper- Pablo Hasél’s arrest on Tuesday, 16th February, over some controversial lyrics and tweets has fuelled a fiery fight for Spain’s freedom. He has been imprisoned for comparing Judges to Nazis, criticising Police for brutality, asserting support for ETA (a Basque separatist group), and jabs at King Juan Carlos. A Catalan police spokesman informed the news agency AFP that Police had to enter a university to find Hasél. They had to deconstruct the rapper and his 50 supporters’ barricade by pushing away chairs and garbage bins amongst other objects. He’d refused to turn himself in earlier on Friday resulting in Tuesday’s row “to enforce the judicial ruling.” El País newspaper also revealed that when escorted out, Hasél shouted: “They will never silence us!” Earlier in the day, he’d tweeted: “Tweets for which I’m going to be jailed in a few minutes or hours. Literally for explaining reality. Tomorrow it could be you.”
The rapper’s words and public arrest have stirred an uproar amongst young Spaniards taking to the streets for Hasél and reasons harboured under the umbrella of his support. A prominent cause of resentment is the Spanish Monarchy- notably King Juan Carlos, who fled to the Emirates during a court investigation into a major financial scandal. On one Saturday evening protest, the crowd chanted: Where is the change? Where is the progress?” and “Juan Carlos de Borbón, womaniser and thief.”
Many are vexed over free assembly and artists being criminalised under the 2015 Public Security Law (informally deemed the ‘gag’ law) despite exercising human rights. They demand that the left-wing government abolish the law as promised. Other deep-rooted failures causing outrage are the high unemployment rates and rent prices. Youth are left with a future of only worsening economic conditions accelerated by the dire effects of COVID-19. The pandemic reduced Spain’s economy by 11% in 2020, leaving every 4 out of 10 eligible workers below 25 unemployed (the highest rate in Europe). Enric Juliana, an opinion columnist with La Vanguardia (Barcelona’s major newspaper), expressed their pain well. She explained, “It’s not the same now for a person who is 60…with life experience and everything completely organised — as it is for a person who is 18 now and has the feeling that every hour they lose to this pandemic, it’s like losing their entire life.”
Protests that had initially been peaceful on 17th February morphed quickly into violent riots in the night. Banners and signs were replaced by burning furniture, bottles, and stones, and make-shift barricades, prompting Police to use tear or rubber and foam bullets. Even Banks and shops were broken into and looted. Barcelona saw 29 arrested along with eight injured, according to the regional Emergency Service. The protests had continued to Thursday when approximately 300 met with Police greeting them with stones and setting a fire.
Six were arrested, and two officers were injured. Madrid saw a similar play-out of events at Madrid’s main square- Puerta del Sol. According to Police, 14 were arrested, and five officers were wounded, as reported by the news agency- Europa Press. The clashes were so violent that a protester had allegedly lost an eye the day before due to a foam projectile that Mossos d’Esquadra Police used. Other Spanish cities such as Granada also participated in these dangerous riots. And unsurprisingly, Lleida Prison in Hasél’s hometown, where he is currently, saw the worst of these riots, with rioters assuring him, saying, “Pablo, comrade, you are not alone.” There were thousands of protesters, and cases of arrest and injuries sadly rose as the nightly riots continued. This isn’t due to the majority of protesters that come in peace seeking social and economic reforms and the ability to exercise human rights but a result of a select few succumbing to violence.
Hasél and these protests have amassed substantial attention. For instance, Barcelona’s Mayor -Ada Colau, reminded protesters that “Defending the freedom of expression doesn’t justify in any case the destruction of property, frightening our fellow citizens and hurting businesses already hurt by the crisis [pandemic].” Meanwhile, other politicians want to silence public opinion altogether, such as José Luis Martinez-Almeida (Mayor of Madrid), who stated that “…those who do not accept the rules have no place in our society.” And Imma Viudes, spokeswoman of the SAP-Fepol union for the Catalan police, doesn’t seem to disagree according to her words on Spanish National Radio: “We don’t have the means to control this…
Someone is going to have to put their fist down.” However, Amnesty International has shown exceptional support for Hasél, saying that his arrest was “an excessive and disproportionate restriction on his freedom of expression.” Esteban Beltrán, the director of Amnesty International Spain, insisted that “No one should face criminal prosecution only for expressing themselves on social media or for singing something that may be distasteful or shocking.” The far-left, anti-monarchy United We Can Party is also expressing confident support for Hasél and the protests as they guarantee to work for a “total pardon” for Hasél and others that exercise freedom of speech. They do so despite objection from the pro-monarchy Socialist Party in power currently.
Although it is inspiring to see youth hold politicians accountable for their promises and take a stand for fundamental rights, the violent riots caused by the select few are a disappointing expression of these demands. Those making reprimands through destruction, especially in these unprecedented times, hinder the progress that youth, at large, desire.
The 2015 ‘gag’ law has already garnered heavy criticism given its many weaknesses, but repressing freedom of speech and assembly are significant concerns in these violent protests. The law has placed strict guidelines on many things, including the location and timing of demonstrations. Not abiding by the law’s clauses will result in hefty fines that could climb up to 600,000 euros (for unauthorised protests near key infrastructure) while 30,000 euros is expected for protests that cause “serious disturbances of public safety.” For instance, Greenpeace had done a demonstration in 2011 at a Valencia nuclear plant deemed a “serious disturbance,” resulting in a trial.
Miguel Ángel Soto from Greenpeace had insisted: “It’s our right to express our opinion, to march to parliament, to go to nuclear power plants to say that they are dangerous or unfurl a banner on a building or street.” A panel of Human Rights Experts, including Maina Kiai, also criticized the law. Kiai said it “violates the very essence of the right to the assembly since it penalises a wide range of actions and behaviours that are essential for the exercise of this fundamental right, thus sharply limiting its exercise.” While David Kaye on the panel remarked, “This project of reform unnecessarily and disproportionately restricts basic freedoms such as the collective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Spain.” Meanwhile, Spanish creatives and artists condemned Hasél’s arrest and the repression of their freedoms with a petition signed by 200 creatives, including Hollywood’s Javier Bardem. It warns that the law is a risk to “all public personalities who dare to openly criticise the actions of state institutions.”
Nevertheless, Hasél’s sentence may be extended to two years rather than nine months upon his refusal to pay fines. Meanwhile, Spain is continuing to see large demonstrations; protesters aren’t quite ready to quit yet. Unfortunately, a peaceful approach seems far-fetched, and whether changes will occur is debatable as no clear plans are disclosed. Still, there is some hope upon the government’s announcement that it will relax free speech laws and lower penalties for “crimes of expression.”
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