Spain's real rap battles Josep ValtÃ²nyc performing during a demonstration in Barcelona | Paco Freire/SOPA Images via Belga
Josep ValtÃ²nyc performing during a demonstration in Barcelona | Paco Freire/SOPA Images via Belga
MADRID â" In a small venue in southern Madrid, Pablo HasÃ©l 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 HasÃ©l, a communist who supports Catalan independence, the sentence, handed down last month, is proof of wha t he has been rapping about. âFor some time, Iâve known that I would end up in prison, precisely because in the Spanish state there is no freedom of expression,â says the tall, thickset 29-year-old, whose real name is Pablo Rivadulla, as he waits to go on stage.
âA generation of rappers has emerged with combative lyrics,â he adds. â[The state is] afraid because these lyrics reach a lot of young people, and they donât want those people to get involved in the struggle for the rights that are denied us.â
Fellow members of that generation include Josep ValtÃ²nyc, 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, CÃ©sar 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 courtsâ willingness to impose harsh sentences in HasÃ©lâs and other cases has sparked a fierce debate about freedom of speech.
In HasÃ©lâs 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 GÃ³mez â" a member of the now-defunct communist terror group GRAPO, who was jailed for carrying out a kidnapping, with the comment: âDemonstrations are necessary but not enough, we support those who have gone further.â
âJuan Carlos el BobÃ³n,â 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 âviolent and terro rist activity, representing a form of struggle that is praiseworthy and positive, according to [HasÃ©lâs] criteria.â
The Spanish courtsâ willingness to impose harsh sentences in HasÃ©lâs and other cases has sparked a fierce debate about freedom of speech and put the countryâs complex relationship with terror as well as the behavior of its justice system under intense scrutiny. Ironically, itâs also propelled many of the performers to new heights of fame and notoriety.
HasÃ©l 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) ValtÃ²nyc, Pablo HasÃ©l 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.
âWith the aim of hurting him, they criminalize me,â 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 Spainâs 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. Cataloniaâs indep endence movement frequently portrays Spain as being anchored to its repressive past, with the courts as the governmentâs weapon of choice in thwarting dissent.
But where some see a sinister plot to stamp out critics, others say the judiciaryâs 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 JosÃ© Luis RamÃrez, a magistrate and member of the progressive association Judges for Democracy.
âEven expressions against the police and other state institutions have been considered hate speechâ â" JosÃ© Luis RamÃrez, magistrate
Spainâs 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.
â[In Spain] itâs not necessary to prove that the expression in question could incite the committing of the crime,â RamÃrez says. âJust the fact that there is a bad intention in the expression, thatâs enough for the conviction.
âThatâs a low bar,â he says. âWe should require more.â
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 RamÃrez.
âEven expressions against the police and other state institutions have been considered hate speech,â he says. âThat has nothing to do with the origin of hate speech, which was intended to protect vulnerable groups. But now itâs a category intended to protect the state and thatâs wrong.â
< p>Terrorism cast a dark shadow over the lives of many people of Zoidoâs 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 courtsâ decision regarding ValtÃ²nyc, the 24-year-old sentenced to three years in jail in February.
âWe have to fight intolerance,â Zoido said at the time. âFor that reason, we have a series of legal weapons. And in the end, itâs the corresponding institutions which must decide.â
Ghosts of Spanish terror
Terrorism cast a dark shadow over the lives of many people of Zoidoâs 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 â" a Marxist anti-capitalism group calling for Spain to become a Republican state â" meanwhile, claimed over 80 victims b etween 1975 and 2006.
The threat of radical Islamic terror now dominates government anti-terror strategy. But the recent spate of cases against Spainâs controversial rappers shows the countryâs judiciary has not yet let go of the fear of ETA and GRAPO.
âThereâs no armed struggle in Spain now, the only dissidence is in the form of opinions,â ValtÃ²nyc says backstage at a theater in central Madrid, where he is about to take part in a debate on freedom of speech with HasÃ©l.
âThe Audiencia Nacional doesnât have anything to do now. But it has to be seen to be doing something.â
In December, 12 members of the group Insurgencia each received two-year terms for glorifying terrorism in a song | YouTube
The lyrics that got ValtÃ²nyc 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, ValtÃ²nyc is soft spoken and comes across as more of a bewildered victim than an enraged agent provocateur.
âTheyâre songs, theyâre not pamphlets or op-eds,â he says of the incriminating evidence that could soon send him to prison if a final appeal before the constitutional court fails.
âTheyâre songs and supposedly songs have a margin of creative license. You canât take them too seriously.â
ValtÃ²nyc 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 judiciaryâs focus points to the long-lasting trauma ETA inflicted on the country and comes as many â" mainly righ t-wing â" 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 childrenâs show in which one of their puppets held up a placard that read: âLong live Al Qaeda-ETA.â 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.
âNot always, but in many cases, when the victim hears about these kinds of expressions, they can relive the pain of their own experienceâ â" Antonio Guerrero, lawyer for the Association for Victims of Terrorism
Among those lobbying for Spainâs judiciary to keep up the pressure are influential terrorism victimsâ g roups. 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 â" a privilege victims of the Franco dictatorship do not enjoy â" and Madridâs unremittingly hard line on ETA despite the groupâs abandonment of violence seven years ago is at least partly due to the associationâs campaigning.
AVT is supportive of the recent rash of convictions of artists and others on terrorism charges. âThe right to freedom of expression, which is in our constitution, like all fundamental rights, has limits,â says Antonio Guerrero, a lawyer for the organization. âNo fundamental right is absolute.â
Offensive tweets and songs can exacerbate the suffering of terrorism victims, Guerrero claims. âThese are people who have suffered directly,â he says. âNot always, but in many cases, when the victim hears about these kinds o f expressions, they can relive the pain of their own experience.â
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.
âPablo HasÃ©l always seemed a bit extreme to me, but I understand why heâs so angry at societyâ â" ConcepciÃ³n Gallego, Pablo HasÃ©l concertgoer
Madina was the subject of one of the 2015 tweets that led to CÃ©sar Strawberryâs conviction on terrorism charges. The offending post read: âStreet Fighter, post-ETA: Ortega Lara versus Eduardo Madina,â referring to JosÃ© 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: âItâs disappointing,â he said. âItâs a crap joke.â Madina says every case should be treated separately. The âreversal in terms of freedom of speechâ in recent y ears is worrying, he adds.
At HasÃ©lâs 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 rapperâs leftist, punk-inspired ideals.
Some admit they arenât fans of HasÃ©lâs music but came to offer their support in the wake of his recent conviction.
âPablo HasÃ©l always seemed a bit extreme to me, but I understand why heâs so angry at society,â says ConcepciÃ³n Gallego, a woman in her forties who has come to the show with her husband and daughter.
âThis guyâs lyrics, perhaps some of them are hard to digest, but you shouldnât take them all literally,â she says. âWhat heâs trying to do is wake people up.â
A few moments later, HasÃ©l takes to the stage in a red soccer shirt, spitting out verses to a pre-recorded ba cking track. In one of his songs, âJÃ³dete burguÃ©sâ (âFuck you, bourgeoisâ) he name checks Fidel Castro and Palestinian revolutionaries and vows to âattack the fascist state.â
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 âFreezing Franco: The Battle for Spainâs Memoryâ (2015).
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