On 20 December 1973, the Spanish prime minister was killed in Madrid by a car bomb of such force that the Dodge in which he was travelling was blown more than 20 metres into the air and over the roof of the church where he had minutes earlier attended mass.
It both murdered the man seen as Franco’s natural successor and showed that the Basque separatists Eta could strike at the highest level of his dictatorship.
Forty-four years on, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco’s assassination is once again resonating through Spanish society after Cassandra Vera, a 21-year-old student from the south-eastern region of Murcia, was sentenced to a year in prison for joking about it in a series of tweets.
“Eta launched a policy against official cars combined with a space programme,” she wrote on 29 November 2013.
Five months later, Vera tweeted: “Kissinger gave Carrero Blanco a piece of the moon; Eta paid for the trip there.”
Spain’s top criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, found her guilty of glorifying terrorism and humiliating victims. On top of her jail term, it also barred her from doing a publicly funded job – such as being a teacher – for seven years.
The case has fuelled concerns about freedom of expression in Spain and split political parties along familiar lines. The ruling conservative People’s party (PP) said it respected the court’s decision, while Pablo Iglesias, leader of the anti-austerity Podemos party, came out to defend Vera, as did his coalition partner, Alberto Garzón of Izquierda Unida.
“Joking is not a crime and Spain is not a dictatorship,” Iglesias tweeted. “If that lands you in the Audiencia Nacional, then let them take me there along with Cassandra.”
Vera, who studies history at Murcia University, argues that she had no intention of praising terrorists or belittling their victims.
“It was a joke – nothing more than that,” she told the Guardian. “I don’t regret doing it. It was just humour – and this kind of humour is very accepted in Spain so I don’t think I have anything to be sorry for.”
Vera pointed out that the 13 tweets were drawn from more than 90,000 she had posted and said she had been scared and surprised to find herself before the Audiencia Nacional.
“It’s where the country’s corruption cases end up, and the drug traffickers and the terrorists,” she said. “I can’t believe that I ended up there for a joke in today’s Spain.”
Although Vera’s sentence was suspended as the offence was not violent, she fears the court’s decision will “mark me for life”.
She added: “I want to be a teacher but I can’t get a government loan to carry on studying at university and I don’t know what I’m going to do from now on.”
Vera said that while most of Spain had learned to come to terms with its past through humour, some people seemed to be lagging behind.
“The majority of Spanish society has accepted its past and recognised that the dictatorship was a cruel period,” she said. “And it knows that while jokes about Carrera Blanco may be in bad taste, they’re socially acceptable. But judges and prosecutors don’t see it that way and haven’t adapted.”
Before her trial, Vera had found an unlikely defender in Carrero Blanco’s granddaughter, Lucía, who wrote to the Spanish newspaper El País to criticise the “absolutely mad” decision to prosecute the student.
“I’m scared of a society in which freedom of expression – however regrettable it may be – can lead to jail sentences,” said Carrero Blanco.
Although the public had been overwhelmingly supportive, Vera said she was angry that the Madrid regional branch of the PP had tried to question her fitness to be a teacher by dredging up tweets in which she said she hated children. “It was ridiculous and people have told them so. That’s the level of the people who criticise me. That’s all they have.”
A local PP councillor in Valencia also apologised to Vera, who is transgender, for posting abusive comments about her on social media. Amparo Ciscar Navarro had written: “Where did this thing with a moustache come from?”
Cristóbal Gázquez, a spokesman for BGD Abogados, the law firm representing Vera, said they would appeal the sentence in the Spanish courts and take the case to the European court of human rights if necessary.
The case comes two months after Spain’s supreme court sentenced César Strawberry, lead singer of the group Def Con Dos, to a year in prison for tweeting jokes about Eta and giving the king “a cake-bomb” for his birthday.
Last June, a judge shelved an investigation into two puppeteers for allegedly praising terrorism during a theatre show. Despite insisting the performance was satirical, the men were initially arrested and jailed for five days.
In recent years, human rights groups and the UN have criticised the Spanish government’s controversial “gag law”, arguing that it constitutes a crackdown on the rights of freedom of assembly and expression.
Judith Sunderland, associate director of the Europe and central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, described Vera’s sentence as “completely bonkers” and “incredibly punitive”.
But she said it was in keeping with “quite bad Spanish jurisprudence” on glorifying terrorists and insulting victims.
“You can agree or disagree with the contents of the tweets; you can argue they were in poor taste, you can even argue they were offensive,” she said.
“But the fact of the matter remains that these kinds of rulings do have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, which is of course a fundamental value and freedom in any democracy. It’s very worrying.”