Rapper defiant as jail looms, posing quandry for Spain

Madrid (AFP) –


Despite moving to ease penalties for "excesses in freedom of expression" this week, Spain's government was under pressure Friday as the deadline loomed for a convicted rapper's jail sentence.

The case hit the headlines this week when hundreds of artists threw their support behind Pablo Hasel, who was convicted for glorifying terrorism, slander and libel against the Crown and State institutions.

At issue was a string of tweets attacking the monarchy and accusing police of torturing and killing demonstrators and migrants, with a court giving him 10 days to voluntarily enter prison -- which expires on Friday evening.

Just hours ahead of the deadline, the Catalan artist told AFP he had no intention of turning himself in, accusing the government of empty pledges.

"I refuse to go of my own accord and knock on the prison door," he said.

"So they'll just have to come and kidnap me, which will show up the state for what it really is: a phoney democracy."

Three days ago, the Spanish government pledged to revise down the penalty for "crimes of expression" such as the glorification of terrorism, hate speech, insults to the crown and offences against religious sensibilities, in the context of artistic, cultural or intellectual activities.

Explaining the move, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero admitted there was "a lack of proportionality" in Hasel's sentence.

But the move appeared to be too little, too late for the rapper, despite a last-minute appeal for clemency.

- 'Sword of Damocles' -

The case has sparked protests in Madrid and Barcelona, and a petition demanding Hasel's release signed by some 300 artists including director Pedro Almodovar, Hollywood actor Javier Bardem and folk singer Joan Manuel Serrat.

"The jailing of Pablo Hasel highlights the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of anyone who dares publicly criticise state institutions," they wrote.

Amnesty International said "nobody should be criminally prosecuted for tweeting or singing something unpleasant or shocking".

Even the hard-left Podemos, junior partner within Spain's ruling coalition, has denounced Hasel's conviction as well as that of Valtonyc, another rapper who fled to Belgium in 2018 after being convicted of similar crimes.

Spain requested his extradition but Brussels refused on grounds his offences were not a crime under Belgian law. The decision is being appealed.

The same year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Spain after two Catalan separatists who burnt a photo of the king and queen were sentenced for insulting the crown.

The court found it was a violation of the right to freedom of expression.

- 'In the government's hands' -

"The fact that a person is being sent to prison purely because of an artistic statement has set alarm bells ringing in society," Hasel's lawyer Diego Herchhoren told AFP.

"Today it's Pablo, tomorrow it could be any of us."

Despite lodging an appeal against the imprisonment order, he said the sentence could only be overturned by the government.

"The National Court, being a special tribunal... is not going to suspend Pablo's jail order, but the Spanish government could," he said.

Herchhoren described the reform pledge as "very lukewarm", saying it was of no practical use to Hasel and predicting it would soon become clear what the government's real intentions were.

"We will see whether the state really doesn't want Pablo to go to prison or whether it's just timed to influence the election," he said, referring to Sunday's regional poll in Catalonia, where the rapper is a popular figure.