Seven people were arrested in Barcelona on the second night of protests following the imprisonment of rap artist Pablo Hasél. Scotsman William Aitken was one of them. The following day all the detainees were released except him. A court ruled that William Aitken was to be held on remand and he was subsequently transferred to the Can Brians facility, near Barcelona city. He was held there for over a month until Barcelona’s Audiència court upheld the arguments put forward by Aitken’s legal counsel, who argued that Aitken poses no flight risk even if he isn’t an EU national. In this interview with VilaWeb, the Scotsman recalls the evening of 17 February, how it felt to go to jail and how this process has changed his political views.
—What happened on the evening of 17 February, the day you were arrested?
—That day my girlfriend and I went for a picnic in the park and I had agreed to meet friends at about 5 to go skating in Prat de Llobregat. We got a Passeig de Gràcia train back and as we came out of the station, we found ourselves in the thick of the march. We knew what it was about and so we decided to hang around for an hour. We snapped some shots and put up some videos on Instagram. Suddenly, when I’d just pocketed my phone, a young plainclothes officer came out of nowhere and threw me onto the ground.
—What happened next?
—I was cuffed, arrested and left standing against a police van for at least fifteen or twenty minutes. Then a Catalan police car turned up. I was told to get in and they drove me to the Les Corts station. I have to say that they never roughed me up or anything like that. There was no violence, they merely refused to answer my questions. At first, when they told me to put my hands here or there, they spoke to me in Spanish. When they noticed that I looked like —and actually was— a foreigner, they switched to English. The following day we appeared in court. Everyone before me was released. I took the last spot because I was the last detainee to arrive. And I was the only one they held on remand.
—What did you think when you were told you were going to jail?
—I got a bit worried the minute they said I was to appear in court because I never imagined that I’d wind up in the dock for going to a demo. When the prosecutor argued that I should be held on pre-trial detention because I was a British national and there is no extradition agreement with the UK, I had a feeling that they would not let me go. But when they actually said so, my heart skipped a beat and I couldn’t believe my ears. It was a horrible feeling. You go to a march and hours later you’ve been jailed: it’s just unbelievable.
—Do you think that you’ve spent over a month on remand due to Brexit?
—No, I don’t think they kept me in jail because of Brexit, but it certainly didn’t help. The prosecutor never once uttered the word “Brexit” during the first hearing, actually. They merely said that I was British and that my papers were not in order at the time of my arrest.
—Do you have anything to say about the charges brought against you?
—I’m not supposed to say much, but I do wish to state that the accusations I’m facing are completely baseless.
—What was your greatest concern once you found yourself in prison?
—I wondered if my life in Barcelona was in jeopardy, whether there’d be any collateral damage, such as losing my job, my flat, my girlfriend … But I felt no regret because I knew I was an innocent man. I kept my mind busy doing as much sport as possible: volleyball, basketball, football. I also engaged in other more mental activities, such as playing dominoes. I spent a long time in the prison library, too. I attended Spanish lessons and even taught English, after the teacher there left. There’s always stuff to do.
—You received many letters, didn’t you?
—Yes, lots. From my friends, which is to be expected. But also from many Catalans and Spaniards I’ve never met. In the letters they mainly tried to cheer me up. Many also emphasised the close ties between Scotland and Catalonia and the similarities between the political situation in Spain and England. One of the letters I remember the most was from a Social Work student living in a small Catalan village. She attached a poem by Mario Benedetti, “Hombre que mira al cielo” [Man Who Looks at the Sky]. It just so happened that I was writing and reading a lot of poetry at the time, because I found it relaxing.
—Were you afraid of the other inmates in the Can Brians facility?
—Yes and no. I was concerned before going in, but then I found that the atmosphere was pretty laid-back and I didn’t meet any really scary types. I think nobody was nasty to me because I was the only British inmate.
—Would you say you are a political person?
—I’ve always had my own views about what goes on in the world. I knew what was going on that day [in Barcelona] and the reason for the demonstration. People had gathered to stand for free speech and the freedom of expression. Obviously, now I feel even more strongly about such rights and it is clear that this country needs a change as far as the freedom of expression is concerned.
—What happens next?
—Now we need to wait for the trial to start, which could take as long as one year. I am not allowed to leave Spain before then, as they’ve taken away my passport and I need to show up in court every two weeks. That means I won’t be able to travel to Scotland to see my family. Luckily, they are allowed to come over and visit. Worst of all, my girlfriend and I had made plans to travel to Argentina so I could meet her family. Now we won’t be able to. That’s just from a legal standpoint. On a personal level, I want to get my life back and live as normally as possible, while getting more involved in the struggle for the freedom of expression, leading from the front at demonstrations and in the defence of basic rights. At the end of the day, they want us to be afraid and they are attempting to steer people away from these causes.