Explainer: Why Spaniards are rioting in many cities over fiery rapper’s jailing

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Riots broke out in many Spanish cities this week during freedom of speech protests over the jailing of a little-known rapper for insulting the Spanish monarchy and praising terrorism.

But the issue has now become a hot potato for the country’s coalition government, with the far-left junior partner demanding that the rapper be pardoned — while criticizing police for alleged brutality.

Who is Pablo Hasél?

Up to a few weeks ago, Hasél, 32, was not quite a household name in Spain. An acid-tongued, anti-establishment rapper, he’s considered a poet by some and a punk by others.

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A supporter of Catalonia’s secession from Spain, he has had several brushes with the law, which earned him more than one sentence although he had yet to be jailed. Besides his tweets and lyrics, he has also been charged for assault, obstructing justice and breaking and entry.

But he reoffended recently with a song and tweets insulting former King Juan Carlos I and praising terror groups, pushing authorities to seek his arrest and place him in jail in his native northeastern Catalan city of Lleida to serve a nine-month sentence.

Radical lyrics

Hasél has ruffled many feathers and irked authorities over the past decade. In the insults to the monarchy, he described the former king as “a mafia mobster, pillaging the Spanish kingdom.”

A demonstrator hits a police van with a bat during clashes following a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasél in Barcelona, Spain, on February 17, 2021. (AP)
A demonstrator hits a police van with a bat during clashes following a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasél in Barcelona, Spain, on February 17, 2021. (AP)

In tweets, he referred to a late member of the defunct armed Basque terrorist group ETA as having been “exterminated by the torturing state.” In other compositions, he praised other terror groups and advocated bomb attacks on Spanish state TV and Basque Socialist politician Patxi López.

While some saw this as exercise of his right to free expression, the law opined otherwise.

The protests

Hasél had warned he wouldn’t voluntarily hand himself in to serve his term. He holed up with supporters in a Lleida university last Monday for 24 hours before police led him away — mask-less and angrily shouting out slogans to supporters.

Protests, peaceful at first, sprouted in several Catalan cities, including Barcelona. Hooded demonstrators began hurling objects at police and setting fire to trash containers to set up street barricades. Police responded with foam bullets and baton-charges. One young woman lost an eye.

On Tuesday, the protests spread across the country with serious disturbances in Madrid. Wednesday´s protests were fewer and smaller, but again violent.

An unpopular law

Under fire is the Public Security Law, drawn up by a previous conservative government, which many felt was designed to curtail anti-government protests and protect police.

The law has been used against other rappers and tweeters — even puppeteers. Hasél’s case triggered criticism from Amnesty International and spurred a petition by some 200 cultural figures, including film director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem.

The coalition government, sensing the growing pressure, promised to amend the criminal code to eliminate prison terms for offenses involving freedom of speech.

No immediate end in sight

With more protests being called, the Spanish government and police forces are tasked with calming the situation on the streets and easing the political debate.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez government has defended the police and slammed the violence, but he must contain the split with his far-left coalition partner. United We Can’s avoidance of publicly condemning the violence has fueled opposition calls for the expulsion of its leader from government, which could topple the coalition and trigger fresh national elections.

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