Victims of sex crimes in Spain are among those clamouring for the closure of a controversial loophole in a new law which aims to ensure consent in sexual relations yet which has enabled the release of convicted criminals and triggered a political storm.
The Guarantee of Sexual Freedom law, also known as the “Only yes means yes law”, means that victims of sexual assault no longer need to prove that they suffered violence or intimidation, or that they physically resisted their assailant.
When it was approved earlier this year, the equality minister in the leftist coalition government, Irene Montero, declared that Spain had become “a freer, safer country for all women”.
The law was driven in part by an infamous case in which five men who raped an 18-year-old woman in Pamplona in 2016 were found guilty of sexual abuse and not rape. After enormous outcry, their convictions were changed to rape and their sentences for the attack were increased from nine years to 15 years.
However, since the new law came into effect in October, it has allowed several convicted sex offenders to have their jail sentences reduced. This is because the new law, which broadens the definition of sexual assault, lowers the minimum sentence for such crimes. According to Spanish law, a criminal can appeal to have their sentence reduced in light of changes to the penal code.
Several such appeals made in response to the new legislation have been successful, many of involving criminals convicted of assaulting minors. A Madrid court lowered by two years the jail term of a man sentenced to eight years for sexually abusing his 13-year-old stepdaughter. In another case in Madrid, a man sentenced to six years and nine months for abusing minors had his term reduced by more than five years.
Meanwhile, it was reported that two sex abusers in Mallorca who were given three-year jail terms could go free because they had already served two years. In total, several dozen cases of sentences being reduced in recent weeks have been reported by the Spanish media.
The opposition has said that the lowering of sentences of convicted criminals is due to the government’s incompetence in drawing up the law. Elías Bendodo, spokesman for the conservative Popular Party (PP), warned that “these crimes are cheaper now” than before and said that “anyone who has the intention of committing one knows that now the punishment is lighter”.
Victims of sexual violence have also expressed concern at the possibility of their assailants being released earlier than expected.
However, the equality minister has defended the law, insisting it is technically sound, and has suggested that the reduction of sentences has been due to its misinterpretation by certain judges, who Ms Montero accuses of “a lack of gender perspective”. Speaking to Spanish media this week, she warned that sexism “can end up compromising the impartiality of justice systems and cause judges to apply laws erroneously.”
The supreme court is expected to make a pronouncement on the law in the next few days. The government hopes that it will help end the controversy by ruling that existing sentences should not be retroactively reduced.
On Wednesday, the political debate surrounding this issue intensified. Carla Toscana, a member of congress for the far-right Vox party, accused Ms Montero of being a “liberator of rapists”. She also attacked the minister for criticising judges who had studied law for years, adding: “Your only merit is having studied Pablo Iglesias in depth”, a reference to Ms Montero’s partner, the former leader of the Podemos party.
The comment drew widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum, with prime minister Pedro Sánchez accusing Ms Toscana of taking sexual violence “to the lectern of congress”.