Meet Valtònyc, the exiled Spanish rapper reforming Belgium’s free speech laws

Spain has imprisoned more artists than anywhere else in the world. One musician has begun to push back

November 24, 2021
Valtònyc performing in Barcelona in 2018. EFE News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo
Valtònyc performing in Barcelona in 2018. EFE News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

Josep Miquel Arenas Beltrán, professionally known as Valtònyc, is a 27-year-old exiled rapper from the Spanish island of Mallorca who has successfully reformed Belgium’s free speech laws. Provocative lyrics he wrote in 2012 led to nine years of persecution by the Spanish judiciaries, as well as three years living in exile in Belgium where his extradition has been contested in both the Ghent Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court.

Following a landmark decision in Belgium’s Constitutional Court this October, which defended his lyrics on the basis of freedom of expression, Valtònyc told me: “Belgium wants to move towards the 21st century and reach European standards, whereas Spain does not. Belgium has not had any hesitation in criticising and reforming its penal code when it has seen that it does not respect the fundamental rights of its citizens. Institutions must serve to guarantee the freedoms of the people, not repress them—that’s the difference between a democracy and a repressive state.”

In February 2017, Spain’s National Court condemned the lyrics of ten songs from Valtònyc’s album Residus de un Poeta, ten from Mallorca es Ca nostra, and two others which were uploaded to YouTube under the titles “Marca España and El fascismo se Cura se Muriendo”(fascism is cured by death). The prosecution claimed his lyrics support historic far-left terrorist groups ETA and GRAPO, directly insult the Spanish king and royal family, and contain a death threat against Jorge Campos Asensi, the Balearic Islands president of far-right party Vox.

One year later, the Spanish Supreme Court confirmed his three-and-a-half-year sentence, enforcing articles 490 and 491 of the criminal code which govern the controversial “lèse-majesté” offense. The term lèse-majesté is French for “to do wrong against the monarch”; it makes slander a crime against the crown, an offence with roots going back to Ancient Rome. The law was common across Europe during the medieval and feudal eras but has been largely phased out, at least in its application, in contemporary western democracies.

Two months after the Supreme Court confirmed his sentence, Valtònyc fled to Belgium. Spain immediately lodged a European arrest warrant for his extradition which, over the last three years, has become a high-profile case for freedom of expression and the modern application of lèse-majesté. In 2020, the Ghent Court of Appeal referred Valtònyc’s extradition case to the Constitutional Court, questioning whether the crimes he was convicted of in Spain were protected by the right of freedom of expression in Belgium.

In October 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that Belgium’s own lèse-majesté law—written in 1847—did in fact violate the right to freedom of expression as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. Valtònyc’s lawyer Simon Bekaert called the ruling a “victory” and a “historic step” for the Belgian legal order. Bekaert also said it was good news for Valtònyc’s upcoming final ruling on his extradition, which has been delayed until 28th December.

The reason for Bekaert’s early celebration is that for an extradition case to be successful in Belgium, the prosecution needs to prove double criminality, which means the offense must be a crime in both Spain and Belgium. The October ruling by the Constitutional Court essentially means that the crimes Valtònyc is charged with in Spain are not crimes in Belgium. As such, he is extremely unlikely to be extradited in December.

Spain’s imposition of lèse-majesté and counter-terrorism speech laws have drawn criticism from various European courts and institutions. When I asked Valtònyc if he thought Spain was a democracy, he responded: “No, but what I think is not important. The important thing is the multiple sentences from the European Court of Human Rights against Spain, the multiple Amnesty International documents exposing Spain for not respecting fundamental rights, or the governments of Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, Belgium or the decision of Italy to refuse to hand over [Carles] Puigdemont because there are no reasons to do so. In Spain, there is a real problem with ideological persecution.”

In February 2021, Spain jailed another republican rapper, Pablo Hasél, who was charged with the same offenses as Valtònyc. Whilst Hasél also faced prior charges including the assault of a TV3 journalist and the obstruction of justice, it was the lyrics from his song “Juan Carlos el Bobón” and words from several of his tweets—which insulted the former king and “glorified terrorism”—that led the Spanish National Court to sentence him to two years in prison.

Hasél’s incarceration was condemned by Amnesty International, as well as some 300 Spanish artists, including Pedro Almodóvar and Javier Bardem. The Council of Europe also expressed their concern. An open letter published by the commissioner for human rights addressed to Spain’s minister of justice questioned the country’s lack of legal clarity around “glorifying terrorism” laws. The letter also called for reform to the country’s lèse-majesté law, which they said should align with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Valtònyc told me: “It’s a shame that he [Hasél] is in prison for the same reason I am outside Spain. To find similar criminal sentences you have to go to countries like Turkey or Morocco... The worst thing is that Spain, according to Freemuse [the international non-governmental rights group for artists], is the country with the most artists sentenced to jail in the world.”

Hasél and Valtònyc share many similarities—they are both republican, anti-fascist rappers from Spain who share dissent towards the Spanish crown, yet their current situations are starkly contrasted. One, who fled his country in search of a fair trial, has managed to change European law on freedom of expression; the other, who remained, sits behind bars for lyrics about a corrupt king.