Terrorism jokes no laughing matter for Spain's judges

Adrien VICENTE
One of Spain's top criminal courts found a 21-year-old guilty of "justifying terrorism" by tweeting jokes about the 1973 murder of prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco (pictured)

When she posted jokes on Twitter about a 1973 assassination committed by Spain's Basque separatist group ETA, Cassandra Vera never for one moment thought they would land her a one-year jail sentence.

But last month, one of Spain's top criminal courts found the 21-year-old guilty of "justifying terrorism" and humiliating its victims -- the latest in a series of such convictions for social media pranks that has the country divided, and partisans of free speech worried.

"They ruined my life," Vera tweeted about the 13 posts about the 1973 murder of Luis Carrero Blanco, the prime minister and heir-apparent of dictator Francisco Franco who was killed in an ETA bomb attack that sent his car hurtling into the air.

"ETA combined a policy against the use of official vehicles with a space programme," read one of her posts.

Another said: "Did Carrero Blanco also go back to the future with his car?"

Vera is unlikely to spend time behind bars, as offenders of non-violent crimes with a sentence of under two years do not serve time in jail.

But she now has a criminal record that will prevent her from getting a scholarship for her studies.

The National Court that sentenced her, which specialises in terrorism cases, ruled that her jokes did not form part of a "healthy humoristic environment" and that her attitude was "disrespectful" and "humiliating."

But Carrero Blanco's own granddaughter, Lucia, said in a letter sent to the El Pais daily that she was "scared of a society in which freedom of expression, however regrettable it may be, can lead to jail sentences."

- 'Cult of hate' -

Luis Conde, a historian of comic books, told AFP he remembered more lenient times, even under Franco's dictatorship when people would sing a song that featured the lyrics "Carrero flew," in reference to the attack.

"And now, we can't say it anymore?" he asked.

But Consuelo Ordonez, head of the Covite association for victims of terrorism, said laughing at the expense of Carrero Blanco -- a man associated with Franco's iron-fist rule that ended after he died in 1975 -- was a big mistake.

"If we had been serious about that fact that nothing justifies violence, we wouldn't be talking about more than 800 ETA deaths," she told AFP, referring to the 829 people killed during the group's four-decade campaign for Basque independence.

"The cult of hate that always moved terrorists has not been defeated," she warned.

- 'Sensitive issue' -

The number of court rulings involving alleged acts of "justifying terrorism" has risen from a dozen a year to 26 in 2015, 37 in 2016 and 12 for the first quarter of this year, according to judicial authorities.

Most of them are linked to organisations that are now inactive, such as ETA, which declared a permanent ceasefire in 2011.

In January, for instance, Spain's Supreme Court sentenced rocker Cesar Strawberry to a year in prison for tweets, including one that joked about the 1996-7 ETA kidnapping of a right-wing politician.

"Terrorism is the most sensitive issue," acknowledged Jose Luis Martin, a former editor at satirical weekly "El Jueves", in a country still reeling from decades of violence brought about by ETA and other extremist groups.

"It doesn't compare to criticism of the monarchy, the Church," he added, which the magazine targets on a regular basis.

- Black humour 'therapeutic' -

Ignacio Gonzalez Vega, spokesman for the "Judges for Democracy" professional association, pointed to a new 2015 anti-jihadist legislation as a possible explanation.

Among other things, the law provides for tougher sentences for "justifying terrorism" online.

But "in a democratic society, there are genres such as comedy, black humour" that should be exempt, he said, calling for the law to be modified.

Martin said black humour often played a "therapeutic role," which he believed Spain still needs as it tries to heal the wounds of its bloody 1936-9 civil war and ensuing dictatorship.

For his part, Cesar Strawberry chose to exorcise his conviction with a song.

"Inquisitor!" he sings to hard-rock music.

"Keep harassing those who disturb you, but you won't shut us up."