Rapper’s words provoke police to storm university building

At 6.30am on 16 February around 20 riot police entered the University of Lleida, near Barcelona in Spain, to arrest and imprison a rapper, on the orders of Spain’s high court.

The singer, Pablo Rivadulla Duró (32), better known as Pablo Hasél, and around 70 to 80 supporters had entered the faculty of arts and occupied the building and chained the main door the night before.

The police response led to “doors of the rectorate building [faculty of arts] being smashed down, glass shattered, chairs from the barricade being broken, fire extinguishers being fired at police and around 30 activists being registered,” Natalia Trias of the university’s press office told University World News.

In 2018 Hasél was given a two-year jail sentence and a fine of almost €30,000 (US$36,000) after Spain’s highest criminal court ruled that his lyrics and comments went beyond the limits of free speech and were instead “expressions of hatred”, but the sentence was reduced on appeal to nine months.

The rapper had been instructed to report to prison at the end of January, but had refused to comply.

“They'll have to break in to take me and jail me,” he had tweeted prior to his capture. “[I am going] to make things as difficult as possible for the police” in order to highlight “a massively serious attack” on freedom.

Specifically, through tweets and lyrics, Hasél had accused King Felipe VI and his father Juan Carlos of being involved in the mafia; expressed support for Victoria Gómez, a jailed member of the banned Marxist group Grapo; and argued that police have tortured and killed migrants.

The rapper’s case has fuelled the debate on freedom of speech in Spain and in particular on the country’s Public Security Act, colloquially known as the “gag law”. When it came into force in 2015 Amnesty International said it was going to create a ‘chilling environment’, which would make people afraid to express alternative views or make controversial jokes.

In response to the court’s ruling, over 200 artists, including film director Pedro Almodóvar and Hollywood star Javier Bardem, signed a petition against Hasél’s jailing.

“The persecution of rappers, tweeters, journalists and other cultural and artistic representatives trying to exercise their freedom of expression has become unremitting,” they wrote.

Their calls came as Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government announced plans to review the law so that “verbal excesses made in the context of artistic, cultural or intellectual acts” did not result in prison sentences.

A government spokeswoman said it wanted “to provide a much more secure framework for freedom of expression”, but added that the reform was still at an initial stage.

University backs freedom of expression

For its part, following the protest, the University of Lleida’s board of directors expressed their “support for freedom of expression, in line with the judgments already issued by the European Court of Human Rights”, although they objected to “staff and students of the building having to see their academic, administrative and service activities seriously affected” because of the protest.

”The free movement and access of students and workers to their places of study and work is non-negotiable and must be compatible with the legitimate right to protest (...), which can in no way result in personal or property damage for the university and its people,” said the academic administration.

In an interview on Catalunya Ràdio, University Rector Jaume Puy stated that the police action should “never have happened” and that it is a “failure of those who have responsibility in the matter”.

Puy has said that the “only weapon” the university has is the “word” and that the conflict should be resolved through “dialogue”.

He stated that he respects Hasél’s protest and the “substance” of the issue, but also said: “It is difficult for us to understand that people who call for freedom then enter a public building and put chains on the doors.”

Prior to his arrest, Hasél tweeted that he would go to prison “with his head held high” if he was taken away. “We cannot allow them to dictate what we can say, what we can feel or what we can do,” he said.

After his arrest he said while passing TV cameras: “We will win, they will not bend us with all their repression, never!”

This report was updated on 17 February.