Police and demonstrators in Barcelona clashed for a fifth night on Saturday, with thousands taking to the streets across Spain to protest against the jailing of a controversial rapper for glorifying terrorism and insulting royalty in his music and on Twitter.
Angry demonstrations first erupted on Tuesday after police detained Pablo Hasél, 32, and took him to jail to start serving a nine-month sentence in a highly contentious free speech case.
Since then, protesters have turned out every night, clashing with police in disturbances which began in Hasél’s home region of Catalonia, but have since spread to Madrid and beyond.
Ahead of the rallies, police were out en masse in an attempt to head off the violence that has marred earlier protests, with dozens of police vans lining the streets of Madrid and Barcelona.
Several thousand demonstrators began gathering around 7pm in Barcelona, and clashes broke out as they started marching towards police headquarters.
Protesters hurled bottles, cans and firecrackers at police, who charged at them as smoke poured into the air from burning barricades, an AFP correspondent said.
Others smashed their way into shops along Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia shopping avenue, looting stores such as Nike, Versace, Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss and Diesel.
They also attacked the Barcelona stock exchange building and torched several motorbikes.
The Mossos d’Esquadra regional police said nine people had been arrested at demonstrations across Catalonia, six of them in Barcelona. The region’s emergency services said six people had been injured, two in Barcelona.
In Madrid, around 400 people gathered under a heavy police presence in the city centre, chanting and clapping as curious shoppers stopped to watch.
“Free Pablo Hasél!” they yelled as a helicopter flew overhead and at least 17 police vans could be seen lined up along Gran Via, Madrid’s busiest shopping street.
Earlier, several hundred people had gathered in the southern cities of Malaga, Cordoba and Seville, local media reported, with another 100 protesters gathering in the northern city of Santander and a similar number in Logrono.
So far, more than 100 people have been arrested in the protests over Hasél, and scores more injured in the clashes, among them many police officers and a young woman who lost an eye after being hit by a foam round fired by police.
The disorder appears to have stemmed from a fringe group of mainly younger people who constituted a small number of the thousands who marched to support Hasél and to oppose the Spanish laws used to prosecute him.
Before Saturday night’s protests, Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, made an appeal for calm. “Defending the freedom of expression doesn’t justify in any case the destruction of property, frightening our fellow citizens, and hurting businesses already hurt by the crisis,” she said.
At issue are more than 60 tweets published between 2014 and 2016 for which Hasél was given a nine-month prison sentence in 2018 for “glorification of terrorism”.
He was also fined 25,000 euros ($30,000) for insults, libel and slander for tweets about the former king Juan Carlos I and for accusing police of torturing and killing demonstrators and migrants.
On his Twitter account, the rapper paid homage to armed Spanish groups such Grapo, a Marxist “anti-fascist resistance” organisation accused of about 1,000 acts of violence between 1975 and 2003, including 80 murders and attempted murders, and various kidnappings.
Hasél also tweeted about members of the now defunct Basque separatist organisation, Eta, which during four decades of violence killed at least 853 people in a campaign of car bombings and shootings.
Amnesty International and Spanish celebrities, such as Javier Bardem and Pedro Almodóvar, say Hasél’s sentence – and other jailings – are having a chilling effect on freedom of speech in the country.