11th May 2021

Jailing of rapper spotlights Spain's free-speech row

  • Spanish rapper Pablo Hasel barricaded himself inside a university to avoid a jail term (Photo: Fotomovimiento)

Dozens of Spanish police on Tuesday (16 February) arrested a musician who had locked himself, together with a group of supporters, in a university in Catalonia - in a bid to avoid prison for insulting state institutions and praising terrorism on social media.

Pablo Rivadulla, known as Pablo Hasél, was convicted in 2018 to a two-year prison sentence and a fine of almost €30,000, but an appeals judge later reduced his jail term to nine months because his messages did not "pose a real risk".

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Spain's highest criminal court ruled that some 64 tweets he posted between 2014 and 2016 and a song he shared on YouTube were expressions of "hatred and attacks on honour" - which fall outside the scope of freedom of expression.

The messages include references to the former king Juan Carlos as a "mafia capo", praised left-wing terrorist group GRAPO, compared Spanish judges to Nazis, and named law enforcement "murderers".

"We cannot allow ourselves to be dictated what to say, what to feel, and what to do," Hasél tweeted a few hours before his arrest.

"[These are] the tweets they will jail me for within minutes or hours," he also added in a message to his 125,000 followers on Twitter, warning that "tomorrow it could be you".

Over 200 artists, including film director Pedro Almodóvar, have signed a petition in support of the Spanish rapper, arguing that his imprisonment "leaves the sword hanging over the heads of all public figures who dare to openly criticise the actions of state institutions".

"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 silence any sigh of dissidence," reads the petition.

'Glorifying terrorism'

Other artists and activists have also been convicted for "glorifying terrorism" in Spain in recent years.

In 2018, another rapper, Valtònyc, was given a three-and-a-half-year sentence, but he fled to Belgium, where a court has refused to extradite him.

Following the adoption of the 2017 EU's counter-terrorism directive, which criminalises conduct seen to "glorify" terrorism, rights groups have warned that "glorifying terrorism" is vaguely defined in most national laws - narrowing the boundaries of freedom of offline and online speech across Europe.

"Spain is certainly one of the countries in Europe where counter-terrorism laws have been used the most to target artists," said Marco Perolini of Amnesty International.

However, according to Perolini, laws criminalising glorification and apology of terrorism are not proportionate to threats to national security because "they are too vague and could lead to the arrest, prosecution and convictions of people simply for their exercise of freedom of expression"

'Gag law' reform

Meanwhile, the sentencing of Hasél has triggered a wave of criticism against Spain's ruling socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, who said previously in 2018 that the reform of the Public Security Law - commonly known as the "gag law" - was one of his main priorities.

The law, enacted in 2015 by the previous administration, bans the glorification of groups such as ETA, insults against the Crown and religion, but it also establishes fines for taking and sharing photographs of police officers.

Last week, the left-wing coalition government unexpectedly announced reform of the gag law, aiming to target only actions that "clearly create a risk to public order or encourage some kind of violent conduct".

"The [justice] ministry's proposal will consider that verbal excesses made as part of artistic, cultural or intellectual manifestations should remain outside the scope of criminal punishment," the government said in a statement earlier this month.

So far, the proposal has been rejected by the conservative Popular Party and far-right Vox.

For its part, the European Commission's spokesperson service refused to comment on the imprisonment of Hasél.

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