MADRID — In a small venue in southern Madrid, Pablo Hasél is about to perform what could be one of his last shows before going to prison. The Catalan rapper will spend two years and one day in jail for glorifying terrorism and insulting the Crown and state institutions in one of his songs and a series of tweets.
For Hasél, a communist who supports Catalan independence, the sentence, handed down last month, is proof of what he has been rapping about. “For some time, Ive known that I would end up in prison, precisely because in the Spanish state there is no freedom of expression,” says the tall, thickset 29-year-old, whose real name is Pablo Rivadulla, as he waits to go on stage.
“A generation of rappers has emerged with combative lyrics,” he adds. “[The state is] afraid because these lyrics reach a lot of young people, and they dont want those people to get involved in the struggle for the rights that are denied us.”
Fellow members of that generation include Josep Valtònyc, a 24-year-old from Mallorca, who was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for glorifying terrorism and insulting the monarchy. In December, 12 members of the group Insurgencia each received two-year terms for glorifying terrorism in a song. Also last year, César Strawberry, the lead singer of the metal-rap band Def con Dos, was given a one-year suspended sentence for tweeting a series of jokes about terrorist attacks and the Spanish king.
The Spanish courts willingness to impose harsh sentences in Haséls and other cases has sparked a fierce debate about freedom of speech.
In Haséls case, many of the offending tweets were aimed at the police, whom he accused of brutality and murder. He also posted a photo of Victoria Gómez — a member of the now-defunct communist terror group GRAPO, who was jailed for carrying out a kidnapping, with the comment: “Demonstrations are necessary but not enough, we support those who have gone further.”
“Juan Carlos el Bobón,” the song used as evidence against him, is an acerbic look at the abdicated king, Juan Carlos, that underlines his links to the Franco dictatorship and alleges he financed ISIS by facilitating arms deals between Spain and Saudi Arabia.
The court investigating the case said the lyrics constituted an incitement to “violent and terrorist activity, representing a form of struggle that is praiseworthy and positive, according to [Haséls] criteria.”
The Spanish courts willingness to impose harsh sentences in Haséls and other cases has sparked a fierce debate about freedom of speech and put the countrys complex relationship with terror as well as the behavior of its justice system under intense scrutiny. Ironically, its also propelled many of the performers to new heights of fame and notoriety.
Hasél describes his conviction and sentencing as part of a strategy to crack down on dissent by far-right elements in the Spanish state who never broke with the mindset of the Franco regime, despite four decades of parliamentary democracy.
Spanish rappers (from left) Valtònyc, Pablo Hasél and Elgio | Andreu Dalmau/EPA
Strawberry takes a similar view, claiming his friendship with Pablo Iglesias, leader of the leftist Podemos party, is the cause of his own one-year sentence.
“With the aim of hurting him, they criminalize me,” he says, pointing out that the majority of those recently convicted for their social media posts or performances are on the left of the political spectrum. He and others have compared Spains apparent clampdown with countries where many basic human rights are under threat, such as Turkey and Morocco.
Such drastic views of the Spanish state and its justice system have become increasingly common, particularly in the context of the Catalan crisis. Catalonias independence movement frequently portrays Spain as being anchored to its repressive past, with the courts as the governments weapon of choice in thwarting dissent.
But where some see a sinister plot to stamp out critics, others say the judiciarys hard line is a result of a complex political and legal landscape.
A number of Western countries are prioritizing the fight against terror and hate crimes above personal freedoms, says José Luis Ramírez, a magistrate and member of the progressive association Judges for Democracy.
“Even expressions against the police and other state institutions have been considered hate speech” — José Luis Ramírez, magistrate
Spains legal setup is heavily tilted in favor of those seeking prosecution, he adds. The court responsible for investigating terror-related cases, the Audiencia Nacional, has very specific powers and works closely with police, often combing social media accounts and other sites for potentially offensive content.
“[In Spain] its not necessary to prove that the expression in question could incite the committing of the crime,” Ramírez says. “Just the fact that there is a bad intention in the expression, thats enough for the conviction.
“Thats a low bar,” he says. “We should require more.”
Many of the cases against those accused of glorification of terrorism rest on Articles 578 and 510 in the penal code, which the current government broadened in 2015 to include social media content. This gives more weight to the interpretation of individual judges, according to Ramírez.
“Even expressions against the police and other state institutions have been considered hate speech,” he says. “That has nothing to do with the origin of hate speech, which was intended to protect vulnerable groups. But now its a category intended to protect the state and thats wrong.”
Terrorism cast a dark shadow over the lives of many people of Zoidos generation.
The Spanish government, wary of being seen to meddle in the judiciary, has kept its distance from the cases of the condemned rappers. But Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido appeared to endorse the courts decision regarding Valtònyc, the 24-year-old sentenced to three years in jail in February.
“We have to fight intolerance,” Zoido said at the time. “For that reason, we have a series of legal weapons. And in the end, its the corresponding institutions which must decide.”
Ghosts of Spanish terror
Terrorism cast a dark shadow over the lives of many people of Zoidos generation. The Basque separatist group ETA killed more than 800 people during a four-decade campaign of violence that only officially ended in 2011. GRAPO — a Marxist anti-capitalism group calling for Spain to become a Republican state — meanwhile, claimed over 80 victims between 1975 and 2006.
The threat of radical Islamic terror now dominates government anti-terror strategy. But the recent spate of cases against Spains controversial rappers shows the countrys judiciary has not yet let go of the fear of ETA and GRAPO.
“Theres no armed struggle in Spain now, the only dissidence is in the form of opinions,” Valtònyc says backstage at a theater in central Madrid, where he is about to take part in a debate on freedom of speech with Hasél.
“The Audiencia Nacional doesnt have anything to do now. But it has to be seen to be doing something.”
In December, 12 members of the group Insurgencia each received two-year terms for glorifying terrorism in a song | YouTube
The lyrics that got Valtònyc into trouble mentioned killing a local politician with a nuclear bomb, hanging the king in a public square and blowing up a bus full of conservative politicians. But although he sports a tattoo of a Kalashnikov rifle on his forearm, Valtònyc is soft spoken and comes across as more of a bewildered victim than an enraged agent provocateur.
“Theyre songs, theyre not pamphlets or op-eds,” he says of the incriminating evidence that could soon send him to prison if a final appeal before the constitutional court fails.
“Theyre songs and supposedly songs have a margin of creative license. You cant take them too seriously.”
Valtònyc and others point to the fact that the number of those convicted for glorifying terrorism or humiliating terrorism victims has quintupled in recent years. There have been 114 convictions, most of them ETA-related, since the group announced its permanent cease-fire in 2011.
The judiciarys focus points to the long-lasting trauma ETA inflicted on the country and comes as many — mainly right-wing — politicians insist the group still exerts influence over Spanish society.
In 2016, for example, two puppeteers spent five days in jail in Madrid for staging a childrens show in which one of their puppets held up a placard that read: “Long live Al Qaeda-ETA.” And on Monday, the trial began for eight young people from the town of Alsasua in northern Spain facing terrorism-related charges for their involvement in a bar brawl with two civil guards. The Audiencia Nacional has linked the fighting to ETA-style intimidation. Three of the accused have spent a year and a half in jail ahead of the trial.
“Not always, but in many cases, when the victim hears about these kinds of expressions, they can relive the pain of their own experience” — Antonio Guerrero, lawyer for the Association for Victims of Terrorism
Among those lobbying for Spains judiciary to keep up the pressure are influential terrorism victims groups. The governing Popular Party (PP) has traditionally been seen as close to the most powerful among them, the Association for Victims of Terrorism (AVT).
The government funds AVT through the state budget — a privilege victims of the Franco dictatorship do not enjoy — and Madrids unremittingly hard line on ETA despite the groups abandonment of violence seven years ago is at least partly due to the associations campaigning.
AVT is supportive of the recent rash of convictions of artists and others on terrorism charges. “The right to freedom of expression, which is in our constitution, like all fundamental rights, has limits,” says Antonio Guerrero, a lawyer for the organization. “No fundamental right is absolute.”
Offensive tweets and songs can exacerbate the suffering of terrorism victims, Guerrero claims. “These are people who have suffered directly,” he says. “Not always, but in many cases, when the victim hears about these kinds of expressions, they can relive the pain of their own experience.”
Not all victims agree. In 2002, Eduardo Madina, a member of the Basque Socialist Party (PSE), had his leg blown off by an ETA car bomb. He was 26 at the time.
“Pablo Hasél always seemed a bit extreme to me, but I understand why hes so angry at society” — Concepción Gallego, Pablo Hasél concertgoer
Madina was the subject of one of the 2015 tweets that led to César Strawberrys conviction on terrorism charges. The offending post read: “Street Fighter, post-ETA: Ortega Lara versus Eduardo Madina,” referring to José Antonio Ortega Lara, a far-right politician who was kidnapped by ETA for over a year in 1996-1997.
At the time, Madina seemed more irritated than upset: “Its disappointing,” he said. “Its a crap joke.” Madina says every case should be treated separately. The “reversal in terms of freedom of speech” in recent years is worrying, he adds.
At Haséls concert in southern Madrid, a crowd is gathering. Fittingly, given his politics, the local chapter of the communist party backs onto the venue. Inside the bar, the sea of mullets and dreadlocks suggests the audience shares the rappers leftist, punk-inspired ideals.
Some admit they arent fans of Haséls music but came to offer their support in the wake of his recent conviction.
“Pablo Hasél always seemed a bit extreme to me, but I understand why hes so angry at society,” says Concepción Gallego, a woman in her forties who has come to the show with her husband and daughter.
“This guys lyrics, perhaps some of them are hard to digest, but you shouldnt take them all literally,” she says. “What hes trying to do is wake people up.”
A few moments later, Hasél takes to the stage in a red soccer shirt, spitting out verses to a pre-recorded backing track. In one of his songs, “Jódete burgués” (“Fuck you, bourgeois”) he name checks Fidel Castro and Palestinian revolutionaries and vows to “attack the fascist state.”
The Audiencia Nacional, the court that condemned him, is just a few miles up the road, but it may as well be light years away.
Guy Hedgecoe is a Madrid-based journalist and author of “Freezing Franco: The Battle for Spains Memory” (2015).