Violent protests over rapper's arrest and accusations of police brutality rock Catalonia for fifth day
Posted February 21, 2021 11:43 a.m. EST
CNN — Angry protesters have now gathered in multiple Spanish cities for five consecutive nights, demonstrating over the dramatic arrest of rapper Pablo Hasel earlier in the week.
Thousands gathered in Barcelona on Saturday, including families and elderly protesters at the city's Plaça Universitat, where a rally began peacefully.
After passing another square, called Plaça Urquinaona, police began beating protesters, Berta Galofré Pons, a 23-year-old political scientist, told CNN. Footage from the Barcelona protests on Saturday shows multiple scuffles between demonstrators and police.
Mossos d'Esquadra -- the Catalan police force -- said in a tweet that they rerouted the protests and that a group of demonstrators split from the main crowd, attacking the Barcelona stock exchange before vandalizing and looting shops.
This group burned motorcycles and erected barricades before firefighters arrived on the scene, said officers.
Mossos arrested 34 people on Saturday, taking the total for the week close to 100.
Hasel himself was detained on Tuesday after Catalan riot police stormed Lledia University, near Barcelona, where the rapper and his supporters had barricaded themselves in.
Video from the arrest shows the defiant rapper shouting: "You will never defeat us! You will never overcome us, we will resist until we are victorious."
Hasel had until February 12 to hand himself in to police after Spain's Supreme Court in May 2020 upheld a lower court's conviction in March 2018 against the rapper, whose full name is Pablo Rivadulla Duro.
The conviction was for supporting terrorism, and also for libel and slander against the Spanish monarchy, through his social media messages, according to a copy of the court's sentence and a Supreme Court press office statement. He was sentenced to nine months in jail.
The Spanish government announced last week that it would remove prison terms for offenses involving freedom of expression, however it is not clear when the changes will be made.
Hasel's Twitter account has been silent since it posted Tuesday that he would be jailed imminently.
"How can you put someone in prison for expressing their ideas?" Galofré said when asked why she was in attendance on Saturday night.
"I do not agree with lootings, and there are always people who will take advantage of social movements to cause chaos," said Galofré. "The protests were peaceful until the police intervened."
In Galofré's hometown of Sabadell, a city north of Barcelona, demonstrations were passive and without incident, she added.
A much smaller demonstration took place in the Spanish capital Madrid, where around 100 people chanted for Hasel's freedom.
Five nights of protests
Joan Colet, a 16-year-old student, was protesting at Plaça de Catalunya Saturday night and saw people some split from the main rally group and begin looting.
"A lot of people are taking advantage, they are not here to protest," he told CNN. "They have different motives."
Police beat some demonstrators with truncheons and fired foam balls at others, said Colet, adding that the barricades protesters set up were for protection.
"We are tired of people going to prison for just writing something on social media," he said. "This is about the liberty of Pablo, but also Spanish liberty and free speech."
After footage taken during previous nights showed protesters storming bank branches, and others watching street fires as police sirens wailed, Spain's Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, condemned the protests on Friday morning.
"In a full democracy, and Spain's democracy is a full democracy, the use of violence is unacceptable. There is no exception to this rule," he said at a press conference. "There is no reason, place, or situation that can justify the use of force."
However protesters ignored his warnings as Mossos reported burning waste containers and street furniture on Friday, while protesters broke the windows of several businesses in Barcelona.
Mossos reported similar scenes in Girona, a city in the northeast of Catalonia.
Protesters erected barricades at Barcelona landmarks such as Plaça de Catalunya and La Rambla, where they threw stones and other objects at police, said Mossos. The violence followed similar patterns to the previous three nights of protest.
Accounts of police violence
Police officers beat a Catalan MP, Dani Cornellà, with truncheons in Girona on Friday after he tried to help someone who was being arrested.
"Neither beatings nor state operations will stop the people's desire for freedom and social justice," he said in a tweet. "Thanks for the support. We remain committed to starting a new cycle."
When contacted by CNN, Mossos said the person Cornellà was trying to help had criminal records and that he pushed one of the agents when interfering with the arrest.
A woman was injured in the eye after a projectile hit her on Tuesday, said photojournalist Àngel García, who captured the scene.
"I was standing in front of the riot police line when they shot, he told CNN over the phone on Saturday. "I turned around and saw a woman with her hand on her eyes, covered in blood."
García said the woman was struck by a rubber police bullet and she lost her eye, which CNN was unable to independently verify.
In response to a CNN request for comment, Mossos said its force only use foam balls when maintaining public order. It is currently investigating the incident.
"The police have behaved brutally," said Oriol Estival, a 22-year-old geography student at the University of Barcelona who attended the protests. "There was huge police harassment and unjustified arrests of people who were doing nothing."
Estival said that people had looted the stores of luxury fashion brands, but said most attendees were peaceful. Like Galofré, he said he was not only protesting the arrest of Hasel, but also police brutality and "the rise of the far-right and fascism in Catalonia."
Student unions joined the protests on Friday, marching through the streets in the afternoon carrying a banner that read "Les universitats per la llibertat" or "Universities for freedom."
Over 100,000 people have signed an Amnesty International petition calling for the crime of insulting the crown to be removed from the penal code.