Puppeteers’ arrest sparks debate on freedom of speech in Spain

Two men arrested for allegedly glorifying terrorism after complaints from viewers

About 200 protesters take part in a demonstration against the arrest of two puppet players, at Cibeles Square in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Fernando Alvarado/EPA

About 200 protesters take part in a demonstration against the arrest of two puppet players, at Cibeles Square in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Fernando Alvarado/EPA

 

Two men arrested for allegedly glorifying terrorism and inciting violence with a puppet show they performed have been released, but their case has sparked a barrage of protests and a fierce debate about freedom of speech in Spain.

Alfonso Lázaro (29) and Raúl García (34) were detained a week ago following complaints by parents of children who had watched a performance in Madrid of their show, La bruja y don Cristóbal (The Witch and Don Cristóbal), as part of the city’s carnival festivities. It included scenes such as the murder of a nun, the beating of a policeman and the hanging of a judge.

The charge of glorifying terrorism, meanwhile, stemmed from one of the puppets holding up a placard that read: “Gora Alka-ETA”, a play on words in the Basque language meaning “Long live al-Qaeda-Eta”.

After five days in Madrid’s Soto del Real prison, both men were released on Wednesday, after the judge investigating the case ruled that they were not a flight risk. However, they still face the charges – their passports have been confiscated and they must report regularly to local police.

Protesters took to the streets of several cities on Wednesday night to demonstrate against what they see as an arbitrary violation of freedom of expression. Several hundred people gathered outside Madrid city hall and further protests are being organised for the next few days.

Exercise in humour

They also cited the attack on Charlie Hebdo, adding: “Paradoxically, the same democracy that shouted in shock ‘I am Charlie Hebdo’ and demanded the right to satirise now puts into motion its judicial machine.”

Amnesty International is among those who have called for the charges to be dropped. “A piece of theatre, however inappropriate its content may appear, is not a security risk,” said Esteban Beltrán, head of its Spanish branch.

The investigating judge, Ismael Moreno, disagrees, describing the performance as “more than a mere taunt”.

“Freedom of expression cannot be cover for hateful speech,” Moreno argued, on ordering the men to be jailed.

Politically sensitive

EtaManuela Carmena

The affair has been a political minefield for the mayor, a former communist who took power last May with the backing of a leftist coalition. Having initially condemned the arrests as disproportionate, she subsequently apologised to parents for the show and announced an internal investigation. Her administration has also cut off relations with the organisers of the capital’s cultural events for carnival.

“It was a very serious mistake and those who did not do what they were supposed to do must be accountable,” Carmena said.

Although she welcomed the release of the puppeteers, Ganemos Madrid, one of the groups which supported her mayoral candidacy, has been highly critical of her for not being more strident in supporting Lázaro and García.

“Contributing to the episode’s judicial processing, blaming those involved, criticising the show and sacking some of those organising the carnival events all amounts to an attitude that is far from brave,” Ganemos Madrid said.