Spain's PM condemns riots as protests over jailed rapper enter fourth day

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BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain’s prime minister on Friday condemned the riots that have rocked major cities after the arrest and imprisonment of a rapper for glorifying terrorism and insulting royalty in his songs, as rallies went into their fourth day.

The nine-month jail sentence of Pablo Hasel, known for his fiercely anti-establishment raps, has galvanised a debate over freedom of expression in Spain, prompting the government to announce it would make freedom of speech laws less restrictive and sparking protests that, at times, turned violent.

“Democracy protects freedom of speech, including the expression of the most awful, absurd thoughts, but democracy never ever protects violence,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told an event, promising to “widen and improve freedom of speech”.

On Friday, a few hundred university students marched in Barcelona demanding Hasel’s release in a largely peaceful rally, whose most dramatic moment was when some protesters tossed eggs at the police headquarters.

The mood was in marked contrast to the last three nights when police fired tear gas and foam bullets at demonstrators who set fire to trash containers and motorcycles and looted stores. There were also clashes in the capital Madrid and other cities.

Organisers have called more protests on Friday night and over the weekend.

Officials said around 60 people have been arrested across Catalonia, where Barcelona is located. One woman lost an eye during clashes in Barcelona, triggering calls from politicians to investigate police tactics.

Rights group Amnesty International called for legal changes in Spain, saying that anti-terrorism and gagging laws also unfairly limited people’s right to demonstrate their disapproval in the streets.

“Spain is a country with freedom of expression, of course, but there are threats to that freedom,” Amnesty head for Spain, Esteban Beltran, told Reuters.

Reporting by Joan Faus, Nathan Allen, Luis Felipe Castilleja, Guillermo Martinez and Silvio Castellanos; Writing by Joan Faus; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Barbara Lewis