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TUESDAY, September 27, 2022
A Spanish rapper was arrested for tweets praising terrorists and mocking royals. Then the protests began.

A Spanish rapper was arrested for tweets praising terrorists and mocking royals. Then the protests began.

WEDNESDAY, February 24, 2021

Thousands of protesters have take to the streets in some of Spain's largest cities every night for the past week, where they have often clashed with police. In just one night in Barcelona on Saturday, authorities said they had detained 38 people and recorded injuries among 13.

The anger of the young protesters is centered around the high-profile arrest of a man who until recently been an obscure figure: Pablo Rivadulla, a rapper better known by his stage name, Pablo Hasel.

With an aggressive, anti-authoritarian musical style, the 32-year-old Hasel has a lengthy rap sheet. In the past, he has been sentenced of assaulting a journalist and for threatening a witness at a trial. But Hasel's rise to infamy has mostly come not through his actions, but through his words.

Or more specifically, in the case of his latest arrest and nine month sentence, his tweets.

Spanish prosecutors had pointed to more than 60 tweets Hasel sent between 2014 and 2016, in which he had expanded on the left-wing stance in his lyrics.

Hasel's tweets were certainly provocative.

They included references to the police as killers, Nazis and "cry babies." The Spanish royal family were described as "mafioso, medieval," derided for their alleged links to Saudi Arabia who would be "remembered in history as the parasites they are."

Arguably more offensive, however, were references to the Marxist organization GRAPO and Basque separatist movement ETA, mostly defunct groups that had been previously linked to hundreds of killings between them. Both were categorized as terrorist organizations by the European Union.

"The demonstrations are necessary but insufficient, let's support those who have gone further," Hasel tweeted in 2016, alongside a photograph of Victoria Gómez, a GRAPO member jailed in relation to a violent crimes.

Hasel's subsequent arrest has now sparked a major debate in the country that extends far beyond Twitter.

A petition signed by more 200 Spanish cultural figures, including film director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem, said that Spain resembled countries like Morocco or Turkey, where artists can no longer create freely.

"We are aware that if we allow Pablo to be imprisoned, tomorrow they could come after any one of us," the petitioners wrote.

Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International's writers in prison committee, warned Tuesday that "democracies don't jail poets, even if the words they express are disturbing or uncomfortable,"

The situation has sparked some of the largest protests in years in Catalonia, a northeastern region of Spain with a strong separatist movement. Hasel, who was born in the region, was also a public supporter of Catalonian independence. His arrest came two days after regional elections in Catalonia.

If the protests continue, they may not only threaten peace and quiet but the coalition that holds together the left-wing Spanish government.

Hasel was previously convicted in 2015 after a series of songs he uploaded to YouTube that included lyrics describing violence against Spanish journalists and politicians.

One song, titled "Obama Bin Laden," saw Hasel says that Televisión Española, Spain's public broadcaster, "deserves a bomb." Another, titled "I'm not sorry for your shot in the neck," is addressed to the supporters of Spain's center-right People's Party.

In 2015, the rapper was then sentenced to two years in prison, though he ultimately didn't serve any time behind bars.

The new sentence that focused on his tweets came first in March 2018. It was reduced on appeal to nine months and one day, in part because neither GRAPO or ETA were currently active. This shorter sentence was later upheld by Spain's Supreme Court.

Hasel isn't the first rapper to face prison time for his words. His friend and co-performer Josep Miquel Arenas, known as Valtonyc, was sentenced to three and a half years, but he fled to Belgium and is now fighting against extradition back to Spain.

But Hasel now looks set to become the first rapper to actually serve his sentence. In some ways, that may not be a surprise. "I will go to jail," he told The Washington Post during an interview in 2018. "I can do it."

More surprising is the chaos the arrest has caused. Though most of the protests have been peaceful, in some cities like Barcelona there have been clashes every night.

Free speech advocates argue that restrictions in Spain have grown in recent. They point to a 2015 public security law imposed under a previous People's Party government which broadened an article in the Spanish criminal code that focuses on those that "glorified terrorism."

"If these articles of the criminal code are not amended, freedom of expression will continue to be silenced and artistic expression will continue to be restricted," Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International Spain, warned shortly after Hasel's arrest.

On Tuesday, PEN Català president Àngels Gregori called on Article 578 to be repealed and said defamation should be a matter of civil law "where the government has no role."

Government officials in the center-left Socialist party said that the country would review Spain's free speech laws, potentially removing prison terms for related crimes, but the reform is said to be in the early stages.

But the left wing Unidas Podemos, junior partner in the government, have gone further, proposing new legislation that would eliminate the crime of glorifying terrorism or insulting the royal family. The split has resulted in tension within the coalition, which was already deeply divided over economic policy.

It's a sign of the growing power of the rappers, whose status has only increased in recent years despite the laws meant to silence them. In 2018, Hasel told The Post that his last job had been picking grapes and apples.

At the time of his tweets between 2014 and 2016, he topped out at around 50,000 Twitter followers. Now, he has close to 140,000.