Protests in Spain: Why has the arrest of rapper Pablo Hasél caused such widespread outrage?


By Florine Lips

For almost two weeks, Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Girona and Madrid have seen violent protests in response to the arrest of rapper Pablo Hasél.

On Tuesday 10th February, the Spanish rapper known as Pablo Hasél was arrested by Catalan police at the University of Lleida, where he had barricaded himself in to avoid his sentence. Charges against him include slander against the crown and glorifying terrorism, for which his Twitter feed and the lyrics to his music have been cited as evidence. His nine-year sentence has been met with controversy both within Spain and abroad, but is it the only reason these protests are taking place? Does it speak to a larger issue, such as a lack of freedom of speech in Spain?

Who is Hasél and what are his alleged crimes?

Pablo Rivadulla Duró, known as Pablo Hasél, is a Spanish rapper from Lleida, Catalonia. He became known in the mid-2000s as an artist whose lyrics were radically left-wing, politically-charged and provocative. In 2011, he was arrested for his praise of Manuel Pérez Martínez, the former Reconstituted Communist Party of Spain leader who was serving jailtime for his membership of terrorist group GRAPO. Though he was later released, he was again arrested in 2014 for glorifying terrorism and caused controversy two years later when he assaulted a TV3 journalist, a crime for which he received a six-month prison sentence and a fine of €2,500. This became a two-year sentence and a fine of €24,000 in 2018 when he again praised GRAPO and insulted King Juan Carlos I on Twitter.

On 28th January 2021, he was given ten days to hand himself over to the authorities to serve his sentence. Refusing to comply, he barricaded himself in the University of Lleida on 15th February, where he was arrested a day later.

Where are the protests taking place?

Hasél’s home region of Catalonia has seen the most backlash to his arrest. In Barcelona, protests have been spread across different areas of the city, with some news outlets reporting incidents of violence against local police. On Saturday 20th of February, alleged 38 people were detained, and 13 were left injured. A 19-year-old suffered the loss of an eye in the violence that ensued, an injury that has been attributed to the foam bullets employed by Catalan police against protesters.

In Girona, another Catalonian city, there were reports of protesters setting fire to containers and launching objects against police. Incidents of police violence have also been reported in this region, with CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) politician Dani Cornellà having reportedly been injured in a “totally unjustified attack at the hands of the Mossos d’Esquadra”(Catalan police), according to the party. At least two people were arrested here during the height of the protests in the last week of February.

Madrid has also been home to a great deal of the protests, with similar reports emerging there of vandalism, damage to shops and attempts to injure police. A common thread in all three cities is the youth of the protesters; many of those detained have been under the age of 18, which speaks less to Hasél’s general fanbase and more to the demographic of those demanding change.

Many cite the need to uphold freedom of speech as the main reason for protesting. But there are other clear sources of unrest, such as the detrimental effects of lockdown restrictions and the lingering consequences of the 2008 financial crash, which led to years of economic crisis in Spain. Youth unemployment in the country remains high, with levels hitting 40.7% at the end of 2020 – the highest percentage in the EU.

What has the global response been?

In Spain, the response has been widespread. Over 200 artists, including Pedro Almodóvar, Javier Bardem and Alba Flores have signed a manifesto declaring their support for Hasél and demanding his release. “If today it’s Pablo, tomorrow it could be any of us”, they wrote.

The protests have also affected the unity of the government, showing further cracks in the recently-formed coalition – the first of its kind in Spain’s modern democratic history. Unidas Podemos, one half of the coalition, demonstrated their support for the protests, with MP Pablo Echenique tweeting his support for the “antifascista” protesters in their fight for “justice and freedom of expression”. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE took a different tack, condemning the protests as “acts and vandalism and violence”.

On an international level, Amnesty International issued a statement calling Hasél’s arrest “unjust and disproportionate”. They noted that in Spain at least 75 people have been convicted in the past five years for glorifying terrorism, something they aim to change with the launch of a new campaign to repeal the controversial “gag law”.

The “gag law”

Article 578 of the Spanish Penal Code, often referred to as the “gag law”, makes the “apologism or justification by means of public expression” of known terrorists or groups a criminal offence. In 2018, Amnesty International called for the law to be repealed, citing the “chilling” effect it was having on creativity and political satire. The organization’s report noted that the law had initially been used to quell support for the terrorist groups ETA and GRAPO, both of which have since been disbanded.

Many prominent public figures have had run-ins with Article 578. In recent years, the rappers César Strawberry and Valtonyc were handed prison sentences for respective crimes of endorsement of terrorist groups and slander of the crown. Alfonso Lázaro de la Fuente and Raúl García Pérez, two puppeteers, were charged with glorifying terrorism and detained for five days before their case was dismissed in 2017.

Recently, the free-speech organization Article 19 has called for the reform of the controversial law, noting that both the UN and The European Court of Human Rights have found it to violate freedom of speech. Their recommendations for reform include the decriminalisation of defamation and a tightening of the term “terrorism” to avoid expressions that do not pose an immediate threat to national security.

So, what happens now?

Protests across the country died down around the 25th of February, but the following weekend saw them gaining traction once again. On Saturday 27th of February, Catalan police reported that 13 arrests had been made in Barcelona. In Girona, a reported 500 people took to the streets to continue fighting for Hasél’s release, led by a placard that read “Sin libertad no hay futuro” (there is no future without freedom).

After almost two weeks of consistent protest, and ever-growing media attention, it is difficult to see how the situation will ease without the release of Hasél or an assurance that Article 578 will undergo permanent change. Sánchez’s words have certainly not helped; if anything, anger at the government has only grown following his condemnation of the protest.

In any case, it will take serious reform to show protesters that the law is not biased against the left. The rise of right-wing parties in Spain is a particular cause for concern among the youth, with many criticizing the fact that Article 578 is predominantly used to arrest left-wing protesters, and hardly ever those on the right. “Death to the fascist state” is what Hasél shouted as he entered prison, a reference to the continued echo (as some see it) of the Franco regime in Spain, which many feel this case has exemplified.

It remains to be seen whether the law will be changed. Unidas Podemos has announced plans to review it, with the potential to replace it completely, but it is unclear whether the PSOE will agree to proceed. Certainly, Hasél’s case has made it clear just how unpopular the “gag law” is, and pressure to abolish it will by no means fade in the coming months – it may take significant change to appease the protesters, many of whom have shown themselves to be incredibly committed and unwilling to compromise on an issue they care so deeply about.

Graphic courtesy of Bersun Kılınç