'Extolling terrorism' in Spain: The Spider Operation and the persecution of freedom of expression

Raphael ‘Tsavkko’ Garcia (@Tsavkko_intl), journalist and PhD candidate in Human Rights at University of Deusto, Basque Country, looks at Operation Spider, Spain’s crackdown on musicians and others who are accused of “extolling terrorism” – i.e. have controversial opinions – on social media

BORN in the small Basque town of Amurrio in northern Spain, Alfredo Remírez, 37, became the first twitter user to enter prison, on November 4 2017, as part of "Operation Spider", commanded by the Spanish Civil Guard. The operation was a crackdown on "extolling terrorism" in social media, but which, according to Amnesty International, imposes "unjustified restrictions on the rights to freedom of information, expression and assembly", noting that between 2016 and 2017 alone 28 people were convicted of such crime,  most of them within the limits of the Spider Operation.

His crime was to write welcome messages, on Twitter, to several prisoners who left incarceration. In addition, he paraphrased a song stating that a Spanish General deserved to be shot in the back of his neck. Nevertheless he never acted or asked anyone to act to achieve this goal. It was a way to express frustration and blow out some steam.

The operation had four phases, from April 2014 to April 2016, and about 76 people were indicted. Many have sought to reach agreements to avoid jail time, others are still awaiting trial.

The Spider Operation inaugurated a new phase of judicial prosecution and limitation of freedom of expression in Spain. After Remírez conviction, others followed. From simple users of social networks to journalists and musicians.

The criminalisation of music and musicians which express anger and anguish through controversial songs became recurrent -  either as part of investigations within the Spider Operation, or in isolated legal proceedings (although, many suspect, everything is coordinated), in order to silence dissenting voices at all social levels.

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César Strawberry, the leader of the rap-metal band Def Con Dos was arrested during the third phase of the operation, in May 2015 (the same as Alfredo Remírez) and later convicted in January 2017 to one year in jail for six tweets between 2013 and 2014. Strawberry made a series of jokes about ETA and the terrorist group GRAPO, and also made comments on the fate of characters of the Franco regime such as "Franco, Serrano Suñer, Arias Navarro, Fraga, Blas Piñar... If you do not give them what you gave to Carrero Blanco, longevity is always on your side" or "How many should follow the flight of Carrero Blanco".

To him and many of his supporters, he was only exercising his right to freedom of expression and at no time incited any violent activity. Being sent to jail for merely tweeting controversial opinions does not appear to be an attitude compatible with democratic states.

There are still cases in which social media users have been convicted merely for commenting on political aspects, for example, of the Basque conflict, or for making silly jokes about the fate of Admiral Carrero Blanco (Francisco Franco’s right hand during the dictatorship that lasted until 1975), who was murdered by an ETA command in 1973.

Cases linked to the crime of "extolling terrorism", according to article 578 of the Spanish Organic Law 10/1995, are not uncommon in Spain, nor are all of them connected to Operation Spider.  The operation is just the tip of the iceberg of a larger judicial and political process of persecution of dissident voices in Spain, of those who dare to challenge, with tweets or through music, the current status quo.

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The fact is that Spain has not made an effective transition to democracy with accountability of political, civil and military leaders for the crimes committed or supported by them during Francoism. It is not surprising that the PP, heir to the Franco regime, remains the main political force in the country and until 1 June governed Spain without acknowledging its historical responsibility for the Franco era. It is not surprising that there is a Francisco Franco Foundation legally working to keep the memory of the dictator alive and the courts see no problem in the defense and praise of past crimes - as long as they were committed by the state.

For example, in March 2014, rapper Pablo Hasel was sentenced to two years in prison for broadcasting on social media some of his songs in which he defended the return of armed groups such as the GRAPO and ETA. He was also investigated by a series of tweets in which he made disparaging remarks against the Spanish royal family and other figures of political relevance.

In March 2017, justice asked for a further five years of Hasel's conviction for the song "Juan Carlos el Bobón" (Juan Carlos, the stupid, a joke with "bobón" and the royal family's name, Borbón) in which he sings about the death of the former Spanish king, who abdicated the throne for his son and current king, Philip VI.

In March 2018 he was found guilty and declared: “I will spend five years imprisoned for a crime of opinion, but I will never give up. Never, fucking fascists.”

Criminalisation of songs and the attempt to send artists to prison for expressing themselves through controversial lyrics shared on social media is recurrent, take for instance the 12 members of the rap group La Insurgencia or rapper Valtonyc that were also convicted for similar crimes, such as extolling terrorism or offenses to the crown.

Valtonyc decided to escape Spain and became a refugee in Belgium.

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On April 16, journalist Jorge Correa, known as Boro, of the site La Haine, will once again face trial for covering demonstrations for the website he works for. He was arrested several times while covering demonstrations, accused of violating the dignity of the police, and he was again arrested within the second phase of Operation Spider. He was convicted to one and a half years of jail time not for writing political comments on Twitter, but for re-tweets, meaning that he just shared other people's opinions online.

What seems striking is the total inconsistency in the convictions, based on the liking of the judge, and a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression throughout Spain. Moreover, the insistence on criminalising comments about prominent figures of the Francoist regime, making them appear as victims and not as cruel tormentors of millions of Spaniards, is remarkable.

Expressions of anger or tweets and re-tweets with violent words, even if they cause controversy, are nothing more than attempts to vent; to make a point. Convicting individuals, musicians and even journalists for expressing opinions without any intention of consummation of the acts described is characteristic of dictatorships, not of democracies. The situation gets even worse when people are sued for laughing at the fate of leaders of the dictatorship, or honouring those who resisted it.

Demonstrations in memory of members of the Francoist regime are commonplace in Spain, as are the presence of political parties and organisations that regard themselves as heirs of his legacy, but the historical memory or even the celebration of resistance to the dictatorship is criminalised.

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In addition, the defence of innocents or the request for amnesty of prisoners involved in the struggle for the independence of the Basque Country is mistaken with the defence of ETA itself or support to terrorist methods.

Spain has repeatedly been convicted by the European Court of Human Rights in cases involving terrorism. In 2016 Spain was convicted for not investigating allegations of torture against prisoners linked to ETA – this was the eighth conviction related to torture.

In 2013 the court forced the country to revoke the Parot Doctrine, which applied successively the sentences of those accused of terrorism and in 2011 the same court sentenced Spain for violating the freedom of expression of the leader Arnaldo Otegi, then spokesman for his political party in the Basque parliament, convicted in 2005 for calling the king "the chief of the torturers."

In other words, the persecution of controversial opinions and the ill-treatment given to those convicted of terrorism or of extolling terrorism is commonplace in a European nation.

Picture courtesy of Casa de América