The jailing in June of thirteen rappers for ‘glorifying terrorism’ in their lyrics has once again thrown the spotlight on Spain’s use of draconian legislation to stifle free speech and dissent.
But the sentences of up to nine months meted out to Pablo Hasel and twelve members of La Insurgencia collective pale in comparison with the ordeal suffered by vegan activist Juan Manuel Bustamante, who spent sixteen months in jail on trumped-up terrorist crimes.
Known to friends and family as Nahuel, the softly spoken twenty-nine-year-old from Madrid was arrested in a dawn raid in November 2015. It was the beginning of a Kafkaesque nightmare that saw him pass through five of Spain’s most notorious prisons, often locked up in solitary confinement and denied a vegan diet by his captors, who also beat him. It ruined his family’s finances and led him to attempt to take his life after his release.
For the first time, Peru-born Nahuel has spoken to a foreign medium about his experiences and how they have scarred him. He speaks of the mental trauma, the beatings, the sense of loss but also of his profound gratitude to his mother for never giving up on him.
Nahuel had been a vegan since the age of thirteen. He and five of his friends, Francisco Martínez, Borja Marquerie, Candela Betancort, David Budziszewski and Diego Hernández, were part of a small vegan anarchist group called Straight Edge Madrid. They went to concerts, they handed out propaganda at flea markets, marched for animal rights and posted slogans on social media.
It was to be the latter that caught the eye of police and would be presented in court as evidence that they were ‘glorifying terrorism’. Often, these slogans accompanied images of graffitied bank branches. Among the subversive messages were: “Your ATMs will burn”, “Death to capitalism”, “Hate Spain, hate tobacco”, “Resistance is not violence. It’s self-defence” and “Goku lives, the struggle continues”. (Goku is a Japanese manga character with a cult following in Spain.)
But the ‘glorifying terrorism’ charge was, in fact, a last roll of the dice by the authorities, who had initially hoped to convict Nahuel and his friends on full-blown terrorism charges. That sounds too far-fetched, but thanks to Spain’s anti-terrorism laws, their case was just the latest example.
As Eduardo Gómez, Nahuel’s lawyer, said: “The persecution and jailing of anarchists is a recurring theme. It has never ceased.” He listed four big police operations of this type in Spain between 2012 and 2015: ‘Pandora’, ‘Piñata’, ‘Pandora II’ and ‘Ice’ There were thirty-three arrests across all four, which resulted in not a single conviction. Nahuel was one of twelve to be jailed without bail on ‘terrorism’ charges.
‘Ice’ was the operation against Nahuel and his friends.
Such abusive behaviour by the police and the judiciary is at odds with the image of Spain as a modern and consolidated liberal democracy. As the former Spanish foreign minister – and now EU high commissioner for external affairs – Josep Borrell is fond of saying, “No one is in prison in Spain for their opinions, only their acts”. The reality, however, isn’t consistent with such a claim as in recent years tweeters, puppeteers and rappers are among those who’ve being prosecuted and even jailed for political content.
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) January 18, 2019
Spain is often associated with having a good time. As well as the hedonistic attractions of sun, sand, sea and sangria, it boasts almost unrivalled heritage and cultural portfolios. It’s a country that wields a lot of soft power. Perhaps because of these factors, a string of unsavoury cases violating civil liberties have been shrugged off by the EU and human rights NGOs.
Worryingly, the lawfare has taken on an extrajudicial dimension. Former interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, a man who recently claimed Pope Benedict told him “the devil wants to destroy Spain[i]”, has been implicated in some of the most notorious cases targeting left-wing politicians and Catalan nationalists, who were the victims of fabricated stories[ii] that implied corruption and which were planted in right-wing media.
Nahuel spoke to Cassandra Voices about his ordeal and how it has affected him.
Each prison marked him in its own way. “I was in Soto for a short time,” he said. “But what little I saw in solitary confinement was horrible. Especially when interacting with officers. Navalcarnero was old and dirty, like some South American prisons. In Estremera, I had to deal with openly fascist officers.
“Morón was more violent in every way, and that was when I came out of solitary, so I was sent to the conflictive prisoner modules. Aranjuez was totally horrible and they did anything to screw my life.”
What’s more, Nahuel had to deal with indifference and hostility to his vegan lifestyle, even though the central prison administration recognises a prisoner’s right to a vegan diet. He recounted how in Estremera his diet “was either not respected or was acknowledged in the most absurd ways such as giving me a plate of rice with three tomatoes or a boiled potato, or a plate of rice with another plate of rice”.
He added: “Being vegan in prison is very limited since they do not give you that option and what you can buy on your own is not usually vegan, almost everything contained milk or milk protein. For [the prison authorities]it seemed stupid for me to continue with my position.”
Nahuel’s ordeal began in the early hours of November 4, 2015 at the home of a friend. He and his pals had just finished watching Into the Wild and playing Smash Bros when police stormed in. They later took him home and removed a laptop and hard drives.
The arrest baffled Nahuel. “You never expect that your small group is important enough for the police to follow you for months,” he said. “In the end, all they saw was that I did concerts, sold merchandising and fundraised through events attended by at most twenty-five people.”
Despite the tenuous nature of the charges, the police announced the breakup of a major terrorist organisation. The press dutifully reported the arrests with damning headlines.[iii] El País, considered Spain’s paper of record, reported that Nahuel “is known to the police. He has been arrested on multiple occasions, always for violent acts. In the ‘Surround Congress’ demonstrations, in riots after so-called Dignity Marches, in rallies supporting detainees, in squatting attempts… José Manuel is this group’s main protagonist”.
Judge Carmen Lamela
A day later, the six accused appeared before the National Court. Presiding over the case would be judge Carmen Lamela, an uncompromising reactionary renowned for her harsh treatment of those accused of ‘terrorism’ – as eight Basque youths involved in a late-night bar fight with off-duty police officers found out.[iv] And the charge sheet against Nahuel was daunting: membership of terrorist organisation, possession of an explosive substance or objects and damage with terroristic ends.[v] State prosecutors called for 35-year sentences.
Judge Lamela argued[vi] in the indictment that the accused “constitute and behave as a criminal organisation with a terrorist purpose” with links to other terrorist organisations such as GRAPO (a far-left group active in the 70s and 80s) or the ‘Coordinated Anarchist Group’, whose existence has yet to be proven. Nahuel says of the judge: “It didn’t matter what was said or shown. She had the police version and it didn’t matter when we presented evidence [to the contrary].”
Furthermore, prosecutors argued that the social media memes shared by the young activists constituted “a glorification of violent subversion of the state’s political and social structures and of the struggle against all established powers by various terrorist groups with an anarchist or insurrectionist profile both in Spain and abroad”.
And police claimed[vii] that the six had participated in the occupation of buildings to carry out anarchist propaganda, in the burning of bank branches and in the violent riots and public disorder caused after the so-called ‘March of Dignity’ in March 2015.
Nahuel and his friends weren’t helped by the – intentionally – very loose definition of terrorism in Spain’s criminal code. Article 573 of the code[viii] defines it as anything that “gravely alters the peace” and “subverts constitutional order”. Worryingly from a human rights perspective, it requires no link to armed activity.
But what exactly were the explosive substances found in the group’s possession? Among the evidence presented by police were bangers, matchsticks, red cabbage soup, orange juice, bleach and bicarbonate of soda. The only actual weapon displayed by police after the raids was a baseball bat.[ix] If it wasn’t so serious, you’d laugh.
Yet, when it came to trial, all six were absolved, with the judge ruled that there was “insufficient proof to indicate their concrete participation in a violent act of a criminal nature, nor sufficient evidence that irrefutably demonstrates that they have influenced others to commit such acts”.
But in Spain, with its appalling record of judicial persecution of non-conformist dissidents, such flimsy ‘evidence’ was enough for police and prosecutors to build a case. In the meantime, Nahuel had rotted away in solitary confinement.
Aside from being denied a vegan diet, Nahuel encountered other problems in jail, including beatings from guards and prisoners. But he also suffered psychological and health problems. Inevitably, considering the harsh regime under which he was detained.
“The FIES regime is applied to those accused of terrorism and drug trafficking,” he explains. “I spent more than a year in solitary confinement. All my interactions were observed, including conversations. What I could read was also restricted.
“After a few months, I began to have muscle pains in the stomach, neck and shoulders. I was recently diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and cervical radiculopathy.”
But perhaps the real damage was to his prospects. “When I came out of prison, my life had been ruined. All my career plans and savings had disappeared, so my priority became getting a job. So, I’ve had loads of low-grade jobs without contracts. I was always an anarcho-syndicalist, and now I’m even more so.”
One of the aspects of the FIES regime was that he was constantly moved around. One transfer from Madrid to Seville[x] was particularly arduous – the journey is usually five hours by road. “It was the worst transfer,” he said. “It took four days. The policeman handcuffed me in a small cubicle because he thought I was a Basque terrorist.”
During his time in solitary confinement, Nahuel found comfort in the knowledge that his mother, María Goretty, was fighting tooth and nail for his freedom. Maria was in no doubt as to why her son was jailed. At the time, she said: “He is in prison for having a conscience, for thinking.”
She organised weekly protests in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. Watching footage of dozens marching in the autumnal rain demanding his release is both moving and inspiring.
Nahuel says of his mother’s efforts: “I was genuinely surprised by my mother’s strength. After my arrest, she got into debt and our savings disappeared in a matter of weeks. She had to carry the emotional burden of being ignored and questioned by those who are unaware of the situation in prisons. I can’t possibly thank my her enough for everything she did for me and the people who were with her giving their all.”
Natalia Bosch, the mother of Candela Betancort[xi], also campaigned and gave interviews to raise awareness of the case. She said at the time: “It’s madness. There’s absolutely nothing, not one shred of evidence. It’s just about what they posted on social media.”
It was evident to the mothers that their children weren’t ‘terrorists’ but prisoners of conscience, jailed for their beliefs and ideals – in an EU state in the 21st century. As Natalia Bosch said: “[The accusation of] ‘terrorism’ is used as a form of repression by the state against certain collectives.”[xii]
Nahuel explains the police’s strategy. “They speculated about unrelated events. Later, they intentionally traduced conversations or tweets to distort their meaning. It was a disgrace.”
Does he think they were being stitched up? “The police knew what they were doing,” he says. “And this became clearer the longer the investigation went on.
“More than a set-up, it was a belligerent action against certain political positions and, at the risk of sounding self-centred, me. I say this because in their report they highlighted my ethnic origin, that I was against the Spanish banks and that I was the most dangerous anarchist in Madrid. And the press did the rest by destroying my future opportunities in Spain with its descriptions.”
Nahuel is not alone in thinking latent xenophobia played a role in the harsher treatment meted out to him. His lawyer, Eduardo Gómez, suspects that he was denied bail because he was of Peruvian origin.
And like the vegans’ mothers, he also believes that the accusations[xiii] “prove yet again that these sort of [police]operations only look to break up dissident collectives”. He added[xiv]: “It’s the so-called criminal law of the enemy – you are accused more for who you are than for what you have done.” For Gómez, what Nahuel endured in jail was “genuine torture.”[xv]
Speaking about Nahuel’s case on Catalan TV, Basque human rights lawyer Endika Zulueta said that “People are afraid when they go to a demonstration that they will be beaten, fined, detained and imprisoned. And what that fear does is neutralise people exercising their fundamental rights… and in this case, the criminalisation of thought.”
Silencing or cowing dissent appears to be the aim of the Spanish authorities, and it the case of the vegan activists, it appears to have worked. Between July 14th and November 2nd, 2015, Straight Edge Madrid’s Twitter profile posted just over 2,000 tweets. It has remained silent since their arrests. Nahuel explains: “I rarely used Twitter as I didn’t like it. I never had the password. I used YouTube in conjunction with the others but after our arrests, the password was changed, and I saw no need to post anything. My priorities had changed.”
It’s clear the mental scars of his time in jail have taken their toll on Nahuel. Right from the start, the authorities targeted him for harsher treatment.[xvi] Of the six vegans, four were granted bail after two day, while Borja was eventually granted bail after eighteen days on remand. But Nahuel’s ordeal behind bars lasted from November 4th, 2015, when he was arrested until March 8th, 2017 – 489 days. And the six weren’t acquitted until July 26, 2018.
Nahuel speaks of the trauma he has suffered since his acquittal: “I’ve gone to therapy on and off,” he says. “In 2018, I had severe bouts of clinical depression and tried to commit suicide. I feel better now but I can’t say I’m stable. I’ll go back to therapy when I’ve got economic stability. I haven’t received any compensation from the state.”
He’s also had to go into exile and suffers from a ‘Google problem’ as searches bring up headlines labelling him a ‘terrorist’. “It was impossible for me to get a job in Spain, even in the black economy, because of the information publicised by the police.” he says. “I got work in Germany, then the Netherlands and Belgium. Now, I’m in Estonia working for a while. Even so, I’ve had to explain my situation in Spain.”
The worrying thing is that Nahuel’s ordeal was not an isolated incident. The Spanish state is obsessed with subversives[xvii] who “want to destroy Spain”. These are the internal enemies[xviii] vilified by the right-wing media: Basque and Catalan nationalists as well as supporters of Podemos, the junior partner in the coalition government.
Recently, ordinary Catalan nationalists have been charged with ‘terrorism’ on the flimsiest of evidence. As with Nahuel, a compliant media published a series of ‘leaks’ aimed at establishing their guilt before any judicial proceedings had begun. One paper even went so far as to link them to the 9/11 attacks.[xix] As with Nahuel’s case, a fictitious terrorist organisation, the GAAR (Fast Action Group[xx]) was fabricated by the authorities. Another low-level Catalan nationalist, Tamara Carrasco[xxi], was accused of ‘terrorism’ and ‘rebellion’ for blocking a motorway and staging a sit-in in a toll both.
It’s all part of a tried and tested formula.[xxii] Yes, it often ends with innocent people jailed or, at best, in exile, their futures destroyed. And it often ends with Spain on the receiving end of humiliating rebuke from the European Court of Human Rights. But it’s a price worth paying to save the unity of Spain – especially if the state has no intention of compensating those wrongly accused.
[i] ‘Fernández Díaz confiesa que el Papa Benedicto XVI le dijo que “el diablo quiere destruir España”’ Ondacero, June 12th, 2020, https://www.ondacero.es/noticias/espana/fernandez-diaz-confiesa-que-papa-benedicto-xvi-dijo-que-diablo-quiere-destruir-espana_202006125ee34f4d65a80900017fc637.html
[ii] Jose Antonio Romero, ‘The “cesspit of the Spanish state,” under scrutiny by the courts’, El Pais, April 8th, 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/04/08/inenglish/1554718836_944961.html
[iii] Patricia Ortega Dolz, ‘Cinco anarquistas detenidos por ataques a bancos y nexos terroristas’, November 5th, 2015, https://elpais.com/politica/2015/11/04/actualidad/1446670621_424512.html
[iv] Pascale Davies, ‘Basque bar fight trial tests 10 years of fragile peace in the region’, The Guardian, 14th of April, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/14/basque-country-bar-fight-high-court-ruling-terror-related
[v] ‘Carmen Lucas-Torres, Cuando te toman por terrorista por tener en casa lejía, bicarbonato y caldo de lombarda’, 27th of May, 2018, https://www.elespanol.com/espana/tribunales/20180525/toman-terrorista-tener-lejia-bicarbonato-caldo-lombarda/309970179_0.html
[vi] ‘La causa judicial contra una supuesta organización terrorista anarquista que quedó reducida a unos tuits sobre Goku’ Publico, May 19th, 2018, https://www.publico.es/sociedad/causa-judicial-supuesta-organizacion-terrorista-anarquista-quedo-reducida-tuits-goku.html
[vii] Carmen Lucas Torres, ‘Cuando te toman por terrorista por tener en casa lejía, bicarbonato y caldo de lombarda’, May 27th, 2018, El Espanol, https://www.elespanol.com/espana/tribunales/20180525/toman-terrorista-tener-lejia-bicarbonato-caldo-lombarda/309970179_0.html
[ix] Marcus Pinheiro, ‘Straight Edge, el “grupo terrorista” que quedó en nada: fin al proceso que encarceló 16 meses a un activista vegano’, August 21st, 2018, El Diario, https://www.eldiario.es/politica/acusaciones-audiencia-nacional-straight-edge_1_1970359.html
[x] Terasa Correl, ‘La pesadilla del anarquista vegano que pasó año y medio en prisión por terrorismo: “Tras ETA, el Gobierno necesitaba otro enemigo”’ July 27th, 2017, El Publico, https://www.publico.es/politica/straight-edge-pesadilla-anarquista-vegano-paso-ano-medio-prision-terrorismo-gobierno-necesitaba-enemigo-interno.html
[xi] Inigo Dominguez, ‘Terrorists or troublemakers?’, December 30th, 2016, El Pais, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2016/12/22/inenglish/1482402715_561273.html
[xii] Inigo Dominquez, ‘Absuelto de enaltecimiento del terrorismo el anarquista vegano que pasó 16 meses en prisión’, July 26th, 2018, El Pais, https://elpais.com/politica/2018/07/26/actualidad/1532619800_455742.html
[xiii] Inigo Dominguez, ‘Piden dos años de cárcel por sus tuits para seis miembros de un grupo anarquista vegano’, El Pais, May 19th, 2018, https://elpais.com/politica/2018/05/17/actualidad/1526584732_803262.html
[xiv] Inigo Dominguez, ‘Terrorists or troublemakers?’ El Pais, December 30th, 2016, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2016/12/22/inenglish/1482402715_561273.html
[xv] Eduardo Gómez Cuadrado, ‘Sentencia Straight Edge Madrid: Cuando mostrar posiciones de rebeldía no es apología del terrorismo’, September 10th, 2018, Rights International Spain, http://www.rightsinternationalspain.org/es/blog/137/sentencia-straight-edge-madrid:-cuando-mostrar-posiciones-de-rebeldia-no-es-apologia-del-terrorismo
[xvi] ‘El castigo ejemplarizante de Nahuel’, Contexto y Action, May 11th, 2016, https://ctxt.es/es/20160511/Politica/5953/regimen-FIES-abuso-judicial-prision-preventiva-Straight-Edge-Espa%C3%B1a.htm
[xvii] Connor Blennerhasset, ‘Spain on Trial’, May 1st, 2018, Cassandra Voices, https://cassandravoices.com/politics/spain-on-trial/
[xviii] Conor Blennerhassett, ‘nemies of the People’ Cassandra Voices, February 1st, 2018, https://cassandravoices.com/current-affairs/global/enemies-of-the-people/
[xix] ‘Ataque contra las torres gemelas de septiembre de 2001 – Ap / Vídeo: Entre el material incautado a Jordi Ros apareció un plano llamado “esquema bomba”, ABC, November 7th, 2018, https://www.abc.es/espana/abci-planearon-acciones-visualizando-videos-atentados-11-s-201911062204_noticia.html?ref=https:%2F%2Fwww.google.ie%2F
[xx] Ignasi Jurro, ‘Los independentistas radicales crean los GAAR para “parar Cataluna’’, Cronical Global, December 8th, 2018, https://cronicaglobal.elespanol.com/politica/gaar-gaar-independentistas-radicales_205563_102.html
[xxi] Tamara Carrasco: “He vivido un destierro, un exilio y un confinamiento a la vez” October 2nd, 2019, LM, https://www.lamarea.com/2019/10/02/tamara-carrasco-he-vivido-un-destierro-un-exilio-y-un-confinamiento-a-la-vez/
[xxii] Connor Blennerhassett, ‘Hate Crimes in Spain not as they Seem’, Cassandra Voices, October 1st, 2019, https://cassandravoices.com/current-affairs/global/hate-crimes-in-spain-not-as-they-seem/