Chris Bambery – Spain Continues Violating Basic Civil Rights says ECHR

Be  it governments of the far-right or faux left Social Democrats and Podemos, civil rights are apparently irrelevant in Spain writes Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is author and broadcaster. Co-author (with George Kerevan) of Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia Took on the Corrupt Spanish State and the Legacy of Franco (Luath Press, June 2018)

Imagen de la Audiencia Nacional

Last Thursday, 28 January, the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Robert Spano, issued a warning to Spain concerning the legal cases involving freedom of expression. Specifically about the sentences given by Spanish courts to artists for denigrating or insulting the king, as in the cases of rappers Valtònyc and Pablo Hasel.

Spano stated that the EHCR’s doctrine is “clear”. “We call it the public persona doctrine,” he warned. “Public office holders, ministers, kings – because of the public nature of their functions – must accept wider ranges of criticism”.

He went on to cite two other recent cases involving Spanish justice. The jailing of two men from Girona in Catalonia for burning a photo of the King and Queen, a sentence which he said was “disproportionate” and violated their rights. Spano added that the other country which the Court was concerned about similar cases was Turkey.

Presenting the EHCR’s annual report its President also stated that “more and more judgments” by the ECHR are being questioned in European countries due to the “climate of political polarisation”. “Politicians must take human rights obligations seriously,” he added. He did not specifically mention Spain where the Supreme Court, the Audiencia Nacional, recently did not comply with the EHCR’s judgement ruling against the imprisonment of a Basque pro-independence leader, Arnaldo Otegi, instead the Madrid court insisted on re-trying him.

With perfect timing on the same day Robert Spano delivered his report the Audiencia Nacional insisted that the Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél, convicted for his song lyrics and public comments, had ten days to voluntarily enter prison.

The news of this was made public by Hasél in a Tweet in which he expressed his regret that “in the end there has not been enough solidarity to stop this, something that affects the majority of people as we do not have our freedom of expression guaranteed.”

The rapper, who hails from the city of Lleida added that the authorities want to jail him “for stating objective facts” but that “they will never be able to break me”.

His sentence of nine months and one day in prison for glorification of terrorism, with the aggravating circumstance that it was a repeat offence, and for insulting the Spanish crown and its security forces.

Hasél was convicted of including videos in his social media profile in which he made comments that, according to the court, incited violence, “glorified terrorism” and “insulted” the monarchy and other Spanish institutions. The defence team cited an “effective” right to ideological freedom and freedom of expression, and that the verdict asserted a concept of “license” of expression as an offence, something that is “non-existent” in the penal code, but to no avail.

Hasél lost an appeal against the sentence last November, when Spain’s Constitutional Court decided the sentence did not breach rights of freedom of speech within the Spanish constitution.

The rapper was previously sentenced in 2014 by the National Audiencia, also for exalting terrorism, for the lyrics of some of his songs about terrorist groups GRAPO, ETA, and Terra Lliure. After an appeal process, a 2019 ruling decided that he was not required to enter prison for this first offence, subject to three years without re-offending.

Of course many people would find these references distasteful but he is a rapper. Switching to my native Scotland if such an interpretation of the law existed then tens of thousands of Glasgow Celtic football fans would have faced jail over the decades for glorifying the IRA and insulting the Queen. The same could apply to St Pauli fans in Germany.

The statement by the EHCR President and the later Audiencia Nacional verdict against Pablo Hasél, followed Human Rights Watch issuing its annual report. In the section dealing with Spain the organisation cited concerns over freedom of expression:

“In June, the Supreme Court sentenced rapper Pablo Hasel to nine months in prison after convicting him of glorification and insulting the king. That month, the Supreme Court also upheld an earlier High Court conviction and 6-month prison sentence of 12 members of the hip hop group La Insurgencia for glorifying terrorism. Spain continued to seek the extradition from Belgium of the rapper Valtònyc, convicted in 2018 of glorifying terrorism, lèse-majesté, and threats to a regional politician.

“However, in February, the Constitutional Court overturned a 2017 Supreme Court conviction of musician César Strawberry for glorification and humiliating victims of terrorism in tweets he posted in 2013 and 2014, finding that the ruling violated his right to free expression.

“In October, the trial began of a demonstrator for hate crimes and offending Catholic religious sentiment after carrying a giant plastic vulva through Seville’s streets to mark International Women’s Day in 2013.”

Clearly the judges of Spain’s Audiencia Nacional are no fans of rap or hip hop or much of a sense of humour. But there again it does not seem to be a great fan of freedom of speech.

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