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As free speech debates and “cancellation culture” accusations continue to simmer across the world, the issue emerged last week as a fierce rallying cry on the streets of Spain.

A provocative Spanish rapper has become an unlikely figurehead for widespread protests and has galvanized a debate over free speech in the European country.

Tweets by Pablo Hasél and the lyrics came back to haunt him, as the anti-establishment musician was jailed last Tuesday for insulting the Spanish monarchy and glorifying terrorism, sparking protests night after night in major cities across the country, some of which turned violent.

Hasél – whose full name is Pablo Rivadulla Duró – missed a deadline earlier this month to surrender to police to serve a nine-month prison sentence handed down in 2018, when he was convicted of words and tweets comparing Spanish judges to Nazis and called former King Juan Carlos is a mafia boss. He also referred to the Basque separatist paramilitary group known as ETA, which sought independence from Spain.

Instead, Hasél barricaded himself at a university in the Catalan city of Lleida before he was eventually arrested and jailed.

“Tomorrow it could be you,” he tweeted before he was jailed and after retweeting the words he was sentenced for.

“We cannot allow them to tell us what to say, what to feel and what to do,” he added.

Spanish rapper Pablo Hasel, now in jail, poses in Lleida, Spain last Friday. Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images

Its supporters and those who denounce the perceived limits of freedom of expression have taken to the streets of cities including the capital, Madrid; Valence; and the regional capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, ​​where thousands of people chanted “Freedom for Pablo Hasél” and “More police violence”.

As tensions erupted on Saturday, police clashed with members of fringe groups who erected barricades in the streets and smashed shop windows in downtown Barcelona.

Pepe Ivorra García, 18, a city student who joined the protests on Thursday evening, said he came to peacefully support Hasél and what he called an “attack” on democratic freedoms which “are part of the backbone ”of the Spanish Constitution.

“I am neither Catalan nor pro-independence, but I am a Democrat,” García told NBC News. “I humbly consider it a shame and a democratic anomaly that in a 21st century European country there are prisoners in prison for their ideas.”

Protesters smashed the glass of a bank following a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasel in Barcelona, ​​Spain, Thursday.Felipe Dana / AP

Hasél has become an unlikely champion of free speech after his case brought attention to Spain’s 2015 public safety law. Passed by a previous conservative-led government, the law prevents insults to religion, the monarchy and the glorification of banned armed groups such as ETA.

Over 200 artists, including director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem, signed an open letter in solidarity with Hasél last week.

Human rights organization Amnesty International Spain also condemned the rapper’s imprisonment as a “disproportionate restriction on his freedom of expression”.

The so-called ‘gag law’ of 2015 was a ‘step backwards’ for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Spain, said Koldo Casla, professor of law at the University of England in Essex and former chief of staff of the Basque Country Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Public authorities have been given excessive leeway to impose administrative fines, with chilling effects on peaceful protests,” he told NBC News.

Casla said that although Hasél’s songs may be deemed “cruel or deplorable”, they were not a sufficient reason to apply the penal code. He added that the fury created by his case should be an opportunity for lawmakers “to amend the penal code to ensure it is compatible with the highest standards of free speech.”

The debate prompted Spain’s ruling left-wing coalition government to announce that it would seek to reform the 2015 law by introducing lighter penalties and granting greater tolerance to artistic and cultural forms of expression.

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However, the Spanish protests should worry neighboring countries, Patrick breyer, Member of the European Parliament, told NBC News. He said Hasél’s case represented an attack on “legitimate dissent” and should be of “great concern” to the European Union.

“Spain is going way too far in interpreting and using its anti-terrorism laws, and I’m afraid that may spill over,” Breyer said. “I think satire, jokes and the arts are a very important part of society … and that it’s counterproductive to suppress this kind of talk, and the same goes for criticism of the police. and the Crown – this is extremely important in a democracy. “

A protester hits a police van with a bat during clashes following a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasel in Barcelona, ​​Spain on Wednesday.Emilio Morenatti / AP

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez condemned the violence during the protests.

“Democracy protects freedom of speech, including the expression of the most horrible and absurd thoughts, but democracy never, ever protects violence,” he said on Friday.

Not all Spaniards support Hasél’s case.

Rafa Morata, 49, an elementary school teacher, dismissed the rapper as a “left-wing extremist,” telling NBC News that his arrest was not on his words or his tweets but because he had “glorified the terrorism”.

“His entry into prison led to a debate over free speech which his supporters have used to provoke riots in the streets,” Morata said, adding that the law had unwittingly turned Hasél “into a victim and a hero.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Matthew mulligan contributed.

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