In an operation involving dozens of Catalan riot police, the rapper Pablo Hasél was detained last Tuesday after he and more than fifty supporters barricaded themselves into the rectory building at Lleida University. Convicted of glorifying terrorism and slandering the crown for a series of tweets and song lyrics, Hasél had been due to start a nine month jail sentence days before but had refused to hand himself in. ‘It would have been an undignified humiliation to go freely by myself [to prison] when faced with such an unjust sentence,’ he tweeted.
Tuesday evening saw protests and riots break out across Catalonia, which then spread to the rest of Spain on Wednesday, as thousands demanded the singer’s freedom. One protester lost an eye after police in Barcelona opened fire with foam bullets while in Madrid and Valencia predominately peaceful protests were met with baton charges and excessive police violence. Further protests took place over the weekend with looting in Barcelona met by a brutal response from the Catalan police.
Since the Basque leader and former ETA member Arnaldo Otegi became the first person to be convicted for glorifying terrorism in 2004, 122 people have received prison sentences for speech crimes under Spain’s draconian anti-terror laws – including numerous artists, activists, and bloggers. While the majority have had their jail sentences suspended for being first offences, Amnesty International warned in 2018 of the ‘chilling effect’ such speech crime legislation was having on satire and dissent, not least because of the tens of thousands of euros in fines that have also been imposed. A smaller number of jail sentences have also been imposed for offenses such as slandering the monarchy and offending religious sentiments.
In response to the outrage over Hasél’s jailing, Spain’s left-wing coalition has promised changes to the laws surrounding crimes of expression but the two parties are divided over what legislative action to take. Stung by criticism from its own base over the government’s inability to rein in police violence, it remains to be seen whether Unidas Podemos can now push the centre-left Socialist Party [PSOE] towards meaningful reform – one capable of counterbalancing a decade long crack-down on freedom of expression by the Spanish right and a politicised judiciary.
A Decade of Regression
In the years since the 2008 Financial Crisis, Article 578 of the Spanish criminal code has been used as a key legislative means to target dissenting voices – particularly those who, like Hasél, come from far-left or separatist circles. Introduced by the Popular Party government of José María Aznar in 2000, its vague and broadly defined categories of ‘glorifying terrorism’ and ‘humiliating the victims of terrorism’ gives ‘the state the power to criminalize a wide range of expression that does not meet the high threshold of incitement [of terrorist activity]’, according to Amnesty International.
Between 2011 and 2017, 92 percent of those charged with such offences related to public statements about inactive or disbanded domestic terrorist organisations – i.e. either the Basque paramilitary ETA, or the defunct far-left terrorist group GRAPO. Such offending statements might include expressions of support, invoking these organisations when violently insulting public figures or simply posting irreverent jokes on social media.
One particularly notorious case saw Cassandra Vera, a 21-year-old left-wing university student, sit trial before Spain’s highest criminal court in 2017 for tweeting variations of the well-known joke that Franco-era Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco was Spain’s first astronaut (he had been assassinated by ETA in a massive car bomb that sent his vehicle hurtling into the air). Vera was finally exonerated on appeal after receiving a one-year suspended sentence.
A 2015 Rajoy-era amendment toughened the provisions around social media and led to series of so-called ‘spider (web) operations’ by security forces. The police and the National Guard launched four coordinated raids across Spain during the Popular Party’s final years in office that picked up dozens of people for Twitter and Facebook postings. Others who have faced prosecution for social media activity include rap-metal singer César Strawberry—who among other things joked about sending the king ‘a cake bomb’ for his birthday—and Guillermo Zapata, a member of Manuela Carmena’s left-wing Madrid council, who was forced to stand trial (but later exonerated) for tweets debating the limits of humour.
Hasél himself has been convicted of glorifying terrorism twice. The first time in 2015 was primarily for his combative lyrics, which are full of graphic depictions of violence directed at politicians and capitalists, as well as praise for GRAPO and ETA. The second prosecution centred on a series of tweets that violently denounced police brutality as well as messages of support for jailed GRAPO terrorists, while his conviction for slandering the monarchy rested, in part, on the lyrics of his song ‘Juan Carlos the Dummy’.
Nor is he alone. A whole string of rappers have faced prosecution for praising violence and for their fictional revenge fantasies against the rich and powerful. These include Valtònyc, who fled to Belgium to avoid a three-year jail term, and the 14 members of the revolutionary rap collective La Insurgencia. As Irish Member of the European Parliament Clare Daly noted, ‘Under laws like these you could throw half of Ireland’s folk singers in jail.’
A string of further non-custodial convictions against progressive targets for slandering the monarchy and offending religious sentiments also raises serious concerns. These include the satirical publications El Jueves and various feminist and abortion rights activists. The journalist Miquel Ramos has argued that in contrast to hate crime legislation which seeks to protect vulnerable and marginalized groups in society, these types of offenses simply target criticism of powerful institutions.
Arming the Judicial System
This crackdown on online speech and artistic expression over the last decade also fits in with a wider legislative assault on civil liberties by the right-wing PP government of Mariano Rajoy (2011-18). Amid a period of mass mobilisation against austerity and housing evictions, it introduced a wide-ranging gag law in 2015, which Amnesty International sees as ‘unduly restricting the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly’ and ‘criminalizing some legitimate forms of protest.’ It also gave the police broad powers in terms of issuing punitive on-the-spot fines at protests and public gatherings for, among other things, filming officers.
Equally, however, the crackdown on speech was also made possible because of the role played by activist public prosecutors and a judiciary whose upper echelons have come to be increasingly stacked by PP loyalists. Since Aznar came to power in 1995, the PP have pursued a ruthless strategy of colonising the judicial system – above all by hijacking the highly politicised system by which top judges are appointed in Spain, which was initially designed as a means to gradually counterbalance the influence of Franco-era magistrates.
The body in charge of appointing the judicial hierarchy is the General Council of the Judiciary, whose members are directly elected by the Spanish parliament every five years. In the parliament’s vote on the new Council, the backing of 60 percent of MPs is required, which means that while the government and opposition must negotiate its makeup the ruling party always names the majority of the new Council. Yet the PP has repeatedly blocked the voting in of a new Council when it is in opposition so as to artificially maintain its control over appointing judges. This happened first during a more than two-year period between 2006-8, and then again from 2018 up until the current moment.
El Diario director Ignacio Escolar sees this strategy as a question of survival for the PP who needed sympathetic judges in place to deal with the mounting corruption investigations into the party’s finances. Yet many of these PP loyalists in the judicial hierarchy have also taken up an increasingly interventionist role in Spanish politics – not only policing the limits of freedom of speech to the detriment of the Left, but also pursuing lawfare campaigns against prominent figures within the current progressive coalition, most notably Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska.
Nor can this politicisation of the judiciary be dissociated from the trial and conviction of nine Catalan leaders for sedition over the organising of the 2017 disputed independence referendum – which included incredibly harsh nine-year sentences for civil society leaders Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart. The nine leaders were deemed to have encouraged a ‘riotous uprising’, despite the lack of violence on the part of the independence movement. In leaked WhatsApp messages in the run-up to their trial, PP senate spokesman Ignacio Cosidó claimed his party ‘would control [proceedings] from behind the scenes’.
A Divided Coalition
The controversy over Hasél’s arrest has also opened up another conflict within Spain’s government. PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced last Monday that his government would eliminate jail sentences for crimes of expression, but coalition partner Unidas Podemos is insisting that its draft law to fully remove such offences from the criminal code must now advance to cabinet (having been put on hold due to the pandemic). The radical left party is also seeking to push through government pardons for Hasél and Valtònyc, which are currently under review by the justice ministry.
In recent weeks Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias caused controversy for insisting that ‘Spain does not enjoy full democratic normality’ – pointing to the various exceptional situations the country is facing, from the Hasél case to the corruption in the monarchy. His party have also released a video pointing to the limits it is coming up against as it seeks to advance its agenda – not only the moderate instincts of PSOE, but behind that, the power of the Spanish oligarchy and the deep state.
Such a discursive line works to the extent that it points to the necessary contradictions of being a radical left party in office, but can also easily slide into a catch-all excuse for failure to deliver. Unidas Podemos fought the 2019 election on the promise of holding PSOE to its commitments. Now the various reforms which have been proposed by the coalition at different points need to be advanced with greater urgency – whether that is repealing the gag laws, reforming the laws on sedition, or striking out speech crimes from the statutes. The judiciary must be disarmed.