MADRID — Thousands of Spaniards, mostly women of all ages, took to the streets Monday to demand changes in the law after a ruling in a sex-crime case involving an unconscious teenager renewed anger over the way victims are treated by the legal system.
The protests come after five men accused of gang-raping an intoxicated 14-year-old girl were sentenced to 10 to 12 years behind bars. The outrage was not so much over the length of the prison terms as over the court’s decision to convict them of the lesser crime of sexual abuse instead of sexual assault or rape.
The Barcelona-based court found last week that because the victim had drunk alcohol and smoked marijuana, she “could not accept or reject the sexual relations.” The men, it said, were therefore able to have sex with her without using violence or intimidation — an element required under Spanish law for a crime to be a sexual assault.
The ruling recalled a similar case, also in 2016, in which an 18-year-old was alleged to have been raped by five men at the start of the Pamplona festival that includes the world-famous Running of the Bulls. The initial verdict found the defendants guilty of sexual abuse because the judges saw no intimidation in the way the men cornered the victim in a lonely hallway.
But that was overruled earlier this year by Spain’s Supreme court following a wave of street protests. The court extended the men’s prison terms from nine years to 15 in a landmark ruling that said that the victim, outnumbered, had been subjected to “surrounding intimidation.”
A conservative government, then a Socialist one, promised to modify the criminal code to eliminate the distinction between “abuse” and “assault.”
But progress has been slow amid a political stalemate that is unlikely to be immediately resolved on Sunday, when Spaniards head to the polls for the fourth time in four years.
Monday’s protests were held in more than 40 cities as the hashtag #EnoughPatriarchalJustice spread on social media.
In Madrid, several hundred gathered at the gates of the Ministry of Justice, holding banners reading, “I do believe you!” and “It’s not abuse, it’s rape” — some of the catchphrases in marches that followed the Pamplona case.
Marian Fernández, a 31-year-old psychologist, said protesters were seeking not just new laws or better interpretation of the current ones.
“It all comes down to respecting the concept of consent,” she said. “It’s about understanding that ‘no’ means no and that only ‘yes’ means yes.”
The latest case took place in Manresa, a town in northeastern Spain, at an abandoned factory where a group of young people had been drinking and using drugs.
The victim said during the trial that she could not recall every detail as the five men took turns assaulting her but that she feared for her life because she believed they had a gun. The weapon turned out to be fake.
In addition to being sent to prison, the men were fined a total of $13,300.
Spanish media said the victim plans to appeal the verdict.
The center-left administration of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed to make explicit consent mandatory in all sexual relations and to launch a program to improve gender awareness among members of the judiciary.
But his minority government collapsed without enough parliamentary support at the beginning of this year, and the political deadlock wasn’t resolved with an April election.
A far-right party that has criticized feminism could become an important force in the parliament, according to polls ahead of this weekend’s election.
Some activists and experts said that even without legal changes, the outcome in the Manresa trial could have been different if the judges had drawn lessons from the Pamplona case.
“It’s not enough with better laws; we also need judges who are well trained on gender issues,” said Vivian Waisman, president of Women’s Link Worldwide, a Madrid-based nonprofit organization that promotes women’s rights.
The new ruling, she added, “is a reminder that the judicial system is repeatedly failing to protect female victims of sex assaults.”
Altamira Gonzalo, vice president of Themis, an association of female members of the judiciary, said the sentence “turned the focus once again on the victim and not on the abominable behavior of the attackers.”
“When it’s a robbery, we never consider whether the victim was or not conscious because the court is judging the defendant’s behavior,” Gonzalo said.