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‘Violence unacceptable’ Spain PM says as rapper protests rage

Spain’s government will confront all forms of violence, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Friday as violent protests over the jailing of a rapper for controversial tweets ran into a fourth night.

“Democracy never, ever justifies violence,” the Socialist leader said in his first public condemnation of the unrest which began on Tuesday and has been applauded by his junior coalition partner, the hard-left Podemos.

Spain’s conservative opposition had lambasted the premier for not publicly condemning the violence, calling on him to break with Podemos over its support for the demonstrators.

Angry demonstrations first erupted on Tuesday night after police detained rapper Pablo Hasel, 32, who was holed up in a university in Catalonia to avoid going to jail in a case that has raised concerns about free speech in Spain.

“Violence is an attack on democracy. Consequently, the Spanish government will confront any kind of violence,” Sanchez said.

“In a full democracy — which Spain is — the use of any kind of violence is unacceptable. There is no exception to this rule,” he added, in reference to remarks by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias who said Hasel’s jailing raised questions about Spain’s democracy.

About 100 people have been arrested since the protests began, including 16 overnight in Barcelona and the eastern city of Valencia, and scores have been injured, including a young woman who lost an eye after being hit by a foam round fired by police on Tuesday.

Many police officers have also been injured as protesters have hurled rocks and paving stones at them, while also torching barricades, rubbish bins and street furniture.

Although most of the protests started in Catalonia, where the rapper is from, they have spread to other cities including Madrid where another rally is to take place on Saturday.

On Friday protesters threw firecrackers, cans and bottles at the police outside their headquarters in central Barcelona before burning rubbish bins and smashing the windows of a bank.

Police said there was also looting in Barcelona and in the city of Girona, 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the north. They said three people were arrested in the two cities on Friday.

– Backing the ‘anti-fascists’ –

The clashes have exposed a stark divide in Spain’s leftwing coalition with Podemos MP Pablo Echenique tweeting support for the protesters as the violence raged Wednesday night.

“All my support to the young anti-fascists who are demanding justice and freedom of expression in the streets,” he wrote, triggering a flood of condemnation from across the political spectrum.

Podemos emerged from the anti-austerity “Indignados” protest movement that occupied squares across Spain in 2011, with the party saying the Hasel case highlighted Spain’s “democratic shortcomings”.

But Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos said defending democracy should never involve violence.

“Any expression of violence arises from a violent character. Peaceful people don’t carry out acts of violence.. and within a democracy, no rights are expressed through violence,” he told reporters.

Although the government said last week it would seek to make free speech laws less restrictive, the move does not affect Hasel’s jailing, and Podemos said it would request a pardon for him.

Known for his hard-left views, Hasel was handed a nine-month sentence over tweets glorifying terrorism and videos inciting violence, with the court saying freedom of expression could not be used “as a ‘blank cheque’ to praise the perpetrators of terrorism”.

He was also fined about 30,000 euros ($36,000) for insults, libel and slander for tweets likening former king Juan Carlos I to a mafia boss and accusing police of torturing and killing demonstrators and migrants.

Catalan students unions have called for a strike and a protest Friday over the rapper’s arrest.