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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has denounced violent protests that have broken out over the imprisonment of rap artist Pablo Hasel, after a far-left junior partner in his coalition government spoke out in support of the demonstrators.
In impromptu remarks at the start of a speech about the economy on Friday, Sanchez addressed the three consecutive nights of demonstrations this week that have seen nearly 80 people arrested and more than 100 injured.
“Violence is an attack on democracy,” Sanchez said. “And the government will take a stand against any form of violence to ensure people’s safety.”
Fellow Socialist party member and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, meanwhile, thanked police for their efforts in the demonstrations.
He said officers would continue to “guarantee the rights and freedoms of all society against a minority whose misguided idea of rights makes them have recourse to violence”.
The pair’s comments came after members of the far-left United We Can (Unidas Podemos) party, a junior coalition partner, showed support for the protesters and criticised police for their forceful response after a protester lost an eye, allegedly due to a foam bullet fired by officers.
On Thursday, the party filed a petition for a “total pardon” for Hasel and another rapper, Valtonyc, who fled to Belgium in 2018 to avoid trial on charges of “glorifying” terrorism.
The protests began on Tuesday in Catalonia, hours after Hasel was arrested at a university in the northwestern region.
They quickly fanned outwards to several other cities, including the capital Madrid, adding fuel to a debate over the limits of free speech and unleashing a political storm over the use of violence by both Hasel’s supporters and the police.
Hasel’s detention came after he had attempted to avoid arrest by barricading himself inside a building at Lleida University, some 150km (93 miles) west of Barcelona, Catalonia’s regional capital.
Spanish police stormed the building and took the 33-year-old to prison to serve a nine-month sentence for insulting the monarchy and glorifying “terrorism” in a song about former King Juan Carlos, and in 64 tweets several years ago.
His case has drawn considerable public attention, with artists, celebrities and politicians expressing support for a change in the country’s so-called “Gag Law”, which covers freedom of expression and which Hasel was convicted of violating.
Critics say the law curtails free assembly and muzzles dissent.
Sanchez’s government unexpectedly announced last week that it would change the law to scrap prison terms for offences involving freedom of expression. It did not specifically mention Hasel or set a timetable for the changes, however.
Hasel faced previous charges for assault, praising armed rebel groups, breaking into private premises and insulting the monarchy.
The rapper, whose real name is Pablo Rivadulla Duro, often writes songs in defence of members of the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) and Marxist group GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre). Spanish authorities consider both groups “terrorist” organisations.
Hasel has also accused police of torturing and killing demonstrators, as well as targeting migrants and refugees.