Protesters clashed with riot police wielding batons and firing foam bullets in violent confrontations in Madrid and Barcelona Wednesday night, as fury over the jailing of a popular left-wing rapper spread to the Spanish capital.
Police in Catalonia said they had fired more than 120 foam bullets as they responded to violent protests across the region, in which demonstrators set alight nine vehicles and more than 130 rubbish bins and other objects. Protesters had taken to the streets for a second consecutive night demanding the release of Pablo Hasél, who was arrested after barricading himself into a university building on Tuesday morning.
The jailing of the 32-year-old rapper for praising terrorism and insulting the Crown, under the country’s so-called “gag law,” has fuelled a fierce debate over the limits of freedom of speech in Spain.
In downtown Madrid on Wednesday night, hundreds of demonstrators – some carrying banners reading “Enough censorship” – faced off with about 100 officers, with some throwing bottles at police lines. At least 14 people were arrested, according to authorities, with nine people sustaining minor injuries.
Madrid mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida condemned the violence, tweeting: “The violent and those who do not accept the rules have no place in our society.”
In Barcelona, demonstrators set street furniture alight, erected homemade barricades and hurled stones and bottles, resulting in 29 arrests, according to authorities. Officers fired foam bullets and charged the rallies with batons in response.
In other Catalan towns, protesters lit fires in Girona, while in Lérida, Hasél’s hometown, demonstrators set fire to containers near the jail where the rapper is being held.
Fourteen people were injured in protests across Catalonia, eight of them police officers.
Meanwhile, the Mossos d'Esquadra, Catalonia’s police force, said Thursday it had opened an investigation into how a 19-year-old woman had lost an eye during clashes with police in Barcelona on Tuesday night, after she was reportedly hit by one of 300 foam bullets fired by Catalan police forces that night.
Police officers removed Hasél from Lleida University in Lérida, about 150km (90 miles) west of Barcelona on Tuesday morning, a day after barricading himself inside the institution with about 20 supporters.
The rapper had failed to turn himself in to begin a nine-month sentence for glorifying terrorism, insulting the Crown and insulting state institutions, after Spain’s top criminal court ruled that his lyrics and tweets exceeded the limits of free speech, and amounted to expressions of “hatred and attacks on honour.”
His case has made Hasél a cause célèbre in Spain’s debate over the country’s controversial “gag law,” introduced amid controversy in 2015. More than 200 artists, including actor Javier Bardem, have signed a petition defending the rapper.
The unrest has already created friction in Spain’s governing coalition, with Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo of the Socialist Party criticising a spokesperson for her coalition partner on Thursday morning for defending the protesters.
“It is one thing to defend that a democracy must be rigorous about freedom of expression, and another to encourage situations where we have seen injuries and arrests,” said Calvo in an interview on the Cadena Ser radio network.
Her comments were a response to a tweet by Pablo Echenique, parliamentary spokesperson for Unidas Podemos, in which he expressed “support for the young anti-fascists who are demanding justice and freedom of expression in the streets.”
On Thursday, a Spanish court confirmed another sentence against Hasél – real name Pablo Rivadulla Duró – for threatening a witness in a trial in 2017. According to Spanish media reports, the court will now have to decide whether to compel the rapper to serve the additional sentence in addition to his nine-month term in jail.