A landmark new Spanish law on sexual violence is the target of protests after at least 15 convicted offenders used the legislation to secure reductions to their jail terms while others were released.
Known as the “only yes means yes” law in Spain, it reformed the criminal code to define all non-consensual sex as rape.
Before this, rape convictions could only be secured if prosecutors could prove that violence or intimidation had been used. Often, a lesser charge of sexual abuse was alleged if these factors could not be proved.
The new law, enacted in October, also made wolf-whistling at women an offense and ordered sex offenders to take re-education courses.
Ana I. Bernal, a journalist who specializes in writing about feminism, told VOA: “This law has left a legal loophole. There are many victims who are scared about what could happen because the people who abused them could be let out of prison earlier. They are worried about their safety.”
The law raises the sentences for gang rape or chemical submission, but it reduces both the maximum and minimum sentences in cases where there are no aggravating circumstances like violence or intimidation.
In Spain, a jail term can be retroactively modified if changes to the penal code benefits the convicted offender.
Hundreds of convicted offenders have applied to have their sentences revised since the law came into effect.
The legislation was brought in after a group of five men, known as the Wolf Pack, raped an 18-year-old woman at Pamplona at the world-famous bull running festival in 2016.
In a politically embarrassing reverse for Spain’s leftist government, which has made feminism a central part of its policies, the offenders whose crimes inspired the new rape law could benefit from the legislation.
Augustín Martínez, a lawyer for one member of the Wolf Pack, whose name came from the WhatsApp social media group which the attackers used, said he intends to use the law to try to reduce the offender’s sentence.
The ‘Wolf Pack’ are not the only ones who could benefit.
One man who sexually assaulted his 13-year-old stepdaughter had his sentence reduced from eight years to six years.
In another case, a teacher who paid for sex with his pupils was released after his sentence was reduced.
Victims have gone public to express their anger that they may come face to face with the men who abused them sooner than they believed.
Antonia’s former partner was jailed for 13 years for raping her, but he has had his sentence cut to 11 years.
“It is like a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. This makes me very scared and angry,” she told RTVE, the Spanish state television network. She consented to appear on television but did not give her full name.
With the lesser charge of ‘sexual abuse’ dropped from the criminal code and wider range of offences grouped under ‘sexual assault’, a broader range of penalties was required to ensure proportionality.
This means anyone who was previously convicted of sexual assault who was jailed for the minimum sentence of eight years, can now benefit from the minimum being reduced to six.
Accusations of chauvinism
Spain’s Equality Minister, Irene Montero of the far-left Unidas Podemos party, which is the junior partner in Spain’s coalition government, accused judges who have cut sentences of “breaking the law” on the grounds of “male chauvinism” – remarks which angered the judges’ organizations.
The General Council of the Judiciary, the body responsible for ensuring the judiciary’s independence, hit back in a statement, saying these were “intolerable attacks.”
A female judge, who did not want to disclose her name, told VOA: “Clearly, we are not all machos! This is nonsense.”
Carlos Flores, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Valencia, told VOA that the minister’s claims about judges ‘male chauvinism’ did not make sense.
“At least 55% of Spanish judges are women so you cannot accuse them of machismo. Also, all the judges sitting today trained in the period after the death of (the dictator) General Franco (in 1975) and most receive education in gender politics,” he said.
Flores said that the row over the law which was designed to give more protection to victims has proved embarrassing for the Spanish government.
“All this is happening in an area which this government has made one of its dearest concerns – feminism. This is the most feminist government in Spanish history with the largest number of women ministers. It is a major failure in a major area of interest for this government,” he noted.
Amid calls for Montero to resign, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has come under pressure to act.
“It is unlikely that Sanchez will sack Montero over this. It would be the end of the coalition,” Pablo Simón, a political expert from the University Carlos III in Madrid, told VOA.
This week, the Supreme Court will review a number of cases.
“Let’s wait to see what the courts and prosecutors say about this,” Sanchez said last week.
Opposition parties have exploited the political crisis.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the opposition conservative People’s Party, said: “The effect is that there are rapists who have committed sexual abuse who, thanks to this law, are now more protected because of the president of the government.”
Flores said it was unlikely that the new law would be modified.
Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.