MADRID — A puppet show at an open square in Madrid during Carnival festivities in February featured a policeman who tried to entrap a witch. The puppet officer held up a little sign to falsely accuse her, using a play on words that combined Al Qaeda and ETA, the Basque separatist group.
Angry parents complained, and the real police stepped in. They arrested two puppeteers, who could now face as many as seven years in prison on charges of glorifying terrorism and promoting hatred.
Paradoxically, the puppeteers say in their defense, the police proved their point: that Spain’s antiterrorism laws are being misapplied, used for witch hunts.
Far from an isolated episode, the arrests on Feb. 5 are part of a lengthening string of prosecutions, including two against a rap musician and a poet, that have fueled a debate over whether freedom of protest and speech are under threat in Spain and elsewhere in Europe because of fears of terrorism.
Some European countries, with painful historical chapters of fascism and leftist extremism, have long placed stricter limits on political and hate speech than has the United States. For instance, denying the Holocaust can be prosecuted in Germany as well as France.
But some civic associations and legal experts are growing increasingly alarmed at the broad ways such laws are being adapted as the specter of Islamic extremism becomes Europe’s new preoccupation.
Once such prohibitions become law, even if in response to real security concerns, there is no telling how the statutes could be applied in the future, they say.
The Spanish puppeteers are a case in point. They are being prosecuted under a law on the books in Spain for more than a decade and originally aimed at ETA. Responsible for the deaths of more than 800 Spaniards, the Basque separatist group declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2011.
Last year, however, the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy overhauled and strengthened the law, aiming this time at Islamic terrorism. Among other things, the changes raised the maximum prison sentence for first-time offenders to three years from two to virtually guarantee jail time.
Those steps coincided with the Rajoy government’s introduction of what has become known as a “gag law,” harshly penalizing unauthorized public demonstrations, which has drawn strong criticism at home and abroad.
“This is the latest very serious attack on freedom of expression,” said Joaquim Bosch, a spokesman for Judges for Democracy, an association of about 600 judges that focuses on human rights. “During the Franco dictatorship, troublesome artists went to prison, but not in democratic Spain.”
Even at the height of ETA’s violent campaign, Mr. Bosch noted, the law forbidding the glorification of terrorism was used “about two or three times a year.”