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A week of rage over Spanish rapper's imprisonment

A couple kiss in front of a barricade set by demonstrators during clashes with police following a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasel in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Pablo Hasel was a name little known to most Spaniards two weeks ago.

    Supporters of rap singer Pablo Hasel march along an avenue during a demonstrations condemning his arrest in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

    Go ask people in the streets now and many will tell you it's a stage name inspired by an Arabic tale. That its bearer, a rap artist born Pau Rivadulla Duro, is a free-speech crusader. Others will say he's an enemy of the state. Or a troublemaker. A punk, even.

    Hasel is serving a 9-month prison sentence for inciting terrorism -- he has praised two now-defunct armed groups responsible for killing over 1,000 people in Spain -- and for refusing to pay a fine for insulting Spain's former king.

    But one day, his name might be linked to a legal reform supported by far more Spaniards than those with an affinity for the rapper's acid-tongued, anti-establishment raps and tweets, which included calling the country's former monarch "a mafia mobster," a "wife-beater" and a "womanizer."

    The 32-year-old's rise to mainstream awareness took off last week when, after the deadline for him to appear for imprisonment ran out, dozens of cameras live-streamed his eviction from the Lleida University campus in northeastern Spain.

    Drawing attention to his case, while complicating the work of police who would have to arrest him, was precisely what Hasel had hoped for when he barricaded himself at the university's rectorate.

    Hasel's eventual incarceration triggered street protests that only waned in recent days. The largely peaceful protests degenerated into chaotic night-time clashes between police and small groups of hooded demonstrators, who set alight improvised barricades fashioned with trash containers and looted sporting good stores and luxury shops in Madrid and Barcelona.

    "You have taught us that being peaceful is useless," read a banner displayed by protesters in Barcelona.

    The previous night, the flames had gone out of control, melting a traffic light and nearly engulfing a residential building. Police responded with foam bullets and baton-charged the unruly protesters. Hours later, shop and newsstand owners would count their losses. More than 100 people were injured during the demonstrations, including a young woman who lost her eye in a clash with police. Dozens were arrested.

    Putting a rapper behind bars, even somebody with previous convictions for inciting terrorism and pending cases for assault, obstructing justice and breaking and entry, has also rendered uncomfortable optics for Spain's left-wing coalition government.

    Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists have not publicly supported Hasel but announced a legal reform to eliminate prison terms for offenses involving freedom of speech. Meanwhile, the coalition's junior partner, United We Can, has encouraged last week's anti-government protests and declared that Hasel's case revealed the imperfections of Spain's democracy.

    Last week, the party filed a petition for the rapper to be pardoned, a lengthy bureaucratic process that should ultimately put the matter back in the Cabinet's hands.

    "The best laws, those that lead to the happiness of the people are the ones that make society feel that their fundamental rights are protected while also contributing to peaceful coexistence," said a Cabinet member who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the legal changes under discussion.

    "And that balance," he confided, "is sometimes very difficult to achieve."

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